Rural Water and Sanitation

India becomes open-defecation free but many challenges ahead

The challenge now will be mainly be to sustain India's open-defecation free status

Published: Friday 04 October 2019

On October 2, while celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India was open-defecation free (ODF). In the past four years India has built more toilets than it had done since independence. These figures are stupendous.

Over 100 millions toilets in six lakh villages were added says the Ministry of Water and Sanitation(MWS). Along with this, there were another 6.3 million toilets that were built in cities. 

According to the World Health Organization, open-defecation was reduced by 12 percentage points since 2014 which was nearly four times of what was achieved between 2004 and 2014. Most of rural India had already become ODF by February of this year. Over 93 per cent households in villages had toilets.

The usage rate was also very high. About 96 per cent of the rural population were using these toilets. Given that till 2014, 60 per cent of India defecated in the open, this was no small achievement.

But this new achievement has also created new challenges. The challenge lies in treating and managing the waste collected by these toilets. Disposal of excreta is considered safe by MWS, if the toilet is attached to a soak pit or a septic tank.

This definition only addresses half the issue and is erroneous because soak pits and septic tanks are only containment system. They are not disposal system and most are unscientifically constructed. Which means chances of leakages and contamination is very high resulting in a bigger problem of soil and water contamination.

There is another problem. Without proper septage management, many of these toilets can become defunct and there is no guarantee that those who have changed their behaviour to defecate in toilets, can always go back to open-defecation.

The next mission for the government will have to be setting up an efficient system of managing and treating faecal waste.

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