The national push to build toilets in Indian villages under the Swachh Bharat [Clean India] Mission runs the risk of missing its goal of creating places where people can defecate in private.

A study of villages in Rajasthan state declared “open defecation free” has found that if the underlying structural and behavioral problems of the issue are not addressed then the mission will not have a favorable long-term outcome.

The Clean India initiative was launched throughout the country by the Modi government in 2014. The cleanliness movement by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration aimed at making the country more hygienic.

The central government set a goal to make India a country where people no longer defecate in the open by October 2019. That was adopted by state governments, and some 28 states and union territories out of 35 say they have built enough toilets to eliminate the problem ahead of the deadline.

Success or not?

Heads of the Swachh Bharat Mission claimed on December 6, that 97% of rural India is ‘open defecation free’ or ODF.

However, Devashish Deshpande, one of the authors of the study by Accountability Initiative – from the Center for Policy Research, a public policy think-tank in New Delhi – says that the states’ rush to meet the target has obscured the process of engaging with communities to persuade people to give up open defecation permanently.

“According to SBM guidelines, at least for the rural areas, the definition of ‘Open Defecation Free’ is to essentially stop all fecal-oral transmission. Essentially, it means that every family should have a toilet in the village, and every individual must use it every time. This is the technical definition of ODF,” says Deshpande.

“However, the administrative definition is that every village should have a pre-determined number of toilets in order to be declared as an ODF village. In many circumstances construction of close to 80% of targeted toilets in village households is enough to claim the ODF status,” he said.

Deshpande said pressure to build toilets within a specific timeframe affected the monitoring of the scheme, and many people who had a toilet reverted to defecating outdoors as soon as they realized that they were not being monitored.

Originally, the mission’s primary objective was to change people’s behavior.

For many in rural India, defecating in the open, like the fields, was the norm. They believed that the idea of relieving themselves in a toilet, built inside a house, was unhygienic and made the household impure. So helping people to understand the health aspects of sanitation was seen as a key goal of the national initiative.

“The behavioral aspect of the program, where the officials were supposed to convince people to use the toilet on a permanent basis suffered because frontline bureaucrats were under pressure from states and the center to achieve the ODF status by building toilets,” Deshpande said.

The study found that only one out of nine village councils, in Udaipur in western Rajasthan state, had 100% access to toilets. And, ironically, more than a third of toilet owners (38%) had defecated in the open on the day of the survey.

However, some 14% of individual toilets were found to be incomplete. In two of the councils, Kathar and Bedla, all toilets were found to have been built. However, in others like Gadawat, Toda and Intali Kheda, a large number of toilets had not been completed.

This meant that actual access to usable toilets was significantly lower than claimed, the survey found.

“Because of the deadline, toilets were made in a hurry, which resulted in them not functioning. In some places, they have been left incomplete because there is not enough money,” Deshpande said.

Meanwhile, a quarter of respondents said coercive techniques had been used to get them to build toilets promptly, such as threats to exclude them from primary services or public shaming.

Researchers warned that these tactics could also be counterproductive.

Villages where high numbers of people built toilets, such as Intali Kheda (58%), Gadawat (36%), and Devgaon (63%), also had the lowest reported usage of the same on the day of the survey.

Toilets without plumbing or septic tanks

Around 300 kilometers from Udaipur city in western Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district, a visit to Shergarh block by Asia Times found out that water scarcity and financial constraints were major factors why people used toilets less.

Many villagers in Shergarh have built a structure in their houses that looks like a toilet but is actually used for stacking animal fodder and storing grain.

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Toilet being used as storeroom by villagers in Jodhpur’s Shergarh village in Rajasthan. Photo: Inder Singh Bisht.
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Villagers unable to construct functional toilets due to financial scarcity, instead are only able to build the basic structure. Photo: Inder Singh Bisht

“We were told by the village head that the toilet has to be built. So we raised the structure, clicked a photo of it and sent it to the relevant official. I received 12,000 rupees in few weeks in my account,” Pooran Devi of Jodhpur’s Shergar village said.

The government had assured people they would be paid 12,000 rupees as an incentive to build a toilet.

But she said that sum only enabled her to build the bare structure of the toilet and not other essential items such as a septic tank where the discharge is collected. So after the room was built she abandoned the project mid-way.

Many others, like Devi, faced the same issues and managed to construct only the basic structure but never actually got to use it.

The mere presence of the basic structure in many homes in the village led health chiefs to say the scheme was a success. But many of these so-called-toilets were not functional.

Shergarh’s block development officer Bhuveneshwar Singh claimed that 84% of homes in the village had toilet facilities and that it was the best performing block in terms of rural development schemes in Jodhpur district.

“ODF doesn’t mean toilets in every house. Our understanding is that even if people dispose of their feces in a pit and cover it with soil, it would be considered as a toilet,” Bhuveneshwar said.

Villagers in Shergarh also said that officials verifying the project had also claimed a portion of the 12,000 rupees incentive from them while passing off their incomplete structures as functioning toilets.

Bhikaram Bose, a social activist, said: “Hardly any house in this so-called ideal village has proper toilets. They are built just to fulfill the obligation and satisfy the officials who visit for monitoring.”

Lack of water is another reason for not using toilets, revealed villagers of a nearby village called Devigarh.

A 14-year-old boy named Karan said: “I wake up at 4am and then go for a run. I come home and go across the highway to relieve myself. I know I should use [the] toilet but my mother brings water from afar. We don’t have enough water to drink so how can we use it to wash ourselves,” the teenager said.

Problems in several states

The situation in other states claiming to have got on top of this problem appears similar to that in Rajasthan.

In September, a Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report said that in the western state of Gujarat, 29% of ODF-declared rural households did not have access to toilets.

Similarly, in the southern state of Karnataka, which was declared ‘Open Defecation Free’ on November 19, the World Toilet Day, Rural and Panchayath Raj Minister Krishna Byregowda admitted that while they had managed to get a big number of toilets built, getting people to use them was still their biggest challenge.

The whole idea of getting people to use toilets was to boost public health by reducing an array of diseases, as well as educating people about sanitation and creating a clean India.

In 2019, when the Clean India campaign comes to an end, people will also have a chance to vote in the general election. But this project may not be something the BJP government really should be boasting about.