*This is Part One of the Two-Part Article Series on India’s ODF Challenge*
Human behavior is dependent on culture, with culture adapting to available resources along with the cost and benefit of using a technology. In spite of 22 years having elapsed since the Total Sanitation Project started, India is still struggling with open defecation. The focus on the technology of individual household latrines construction seems to be misplaced. The talking points of the Indian Sanitation Campaigns have been handed down by the western agencies which were initially involved either in funding or handholding during the initial start of the sanitation campaign and the message has remained constant and the focus again seems to be on latrine construction rather than on health and hygiene. The local population, which is supposed to take benefit of a particular development, is not being considered as a stakeholder by the Government of the country
In Haryana, there is a type of latrine called the “Dhamaka Latrine”. This was a funny anecdote I had often heard in my travel across Haryana, and if you are not from Haryana it would be worthwhile to know about it in part two of this article series. In 2007-08, for over 15 months I worked in the Total Sanitation Scheme of GOI which now goes by the name ‘Swachh Bharat Mission‘. I was a consultant to Gurgaon DRDA (District Rural Development Agency) and travelled in all villages of Gurgaon district in the blocks of Gurgaon, Sohna, Pataudi, and Farrukhnagar. Right from the onset of the sanitation program, the focus has been on the construction of latrines and this article is about why this focus has been misplaced if India is to achieve an open defecation-free society.
In the course of my work, I addressed countless town hall type meetings in nearly all villages of Gurgaon district as well as separately meeting Anganwadi workers, ASHA workers, sarpanches, school teachers, etc. The basic premise of TSC (Total Sanitation Campaign), Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) as that of Swachh Bharata Mission (SBM) is an Open Defecation Free (ODF) India by the construction of individual household latrines. The below poverty line (BPL) would get a subsidy for constructing a latrine after the construction is over and it is certified by the panchayat secretary that indeed the construction has been done, while the above poverty line families (APL) got nothing. There has been subsequent tweaking in this.
The meetings threw up valid concerns by people and other stakeholders, concerns which had nothing to do with culture and the religious belief system of purity and pollution. The concerns and related questions had to do with logistics associated with the technology of latrine construction. Sample some of the concerns and questions:
- We don’t have enough water in our households. We have to fetch water. How will we be able to use and maintain a latrine which needs a lot of water to flush?
- We are a family of 8, how will we get water for the latrine?
- We don’t have enough area in our house, where do we construct a latrine and how will we be able to construct a pit for the collection of excreta? Where is the space?
- How will one pit be sufficient for a latrine for a family of 8?
- In the space available we have a handpump which provide us with drinking water. If we were to create an excreta pit along with the latrine, won’t our water supply get polluted with germs from the excreta?
- Why do we need a latrine when there is so much open space for defecation and we have been doing it for generations?
- Where will we get the money to construct a latrine? Even if for a BPL the government subsidy takes years to come. Where do we get the money to upfront construct the latrine?
- Why would we spend 50,000 rupees for a latrine when the government gives us a few thousand rupees? (The masons were neither convinced nor trained to construct a latrine pit, so all of them constructed a septic tank which is expensive both in terms of initial cost and recurring cost)
Within a very short period of time, it was clear that people were being primed to the issues with open defecation. But, most were unable to change behaviors due to one of the above-mentioned concerns.
All sanitation programs since the 1999 Total Sanitation Campaign, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), and the current Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) use the following talking point:
Talking Point 1: We need latrines as excreta spreads infections due to the prevalence of germs which makes people sick.
Talking Point 2: If you have latrines you will fall less ill which means fewer visits to the doctors thereby saving money for food etc.
Talking Point 3: It is shameful to defecate in the open and why will you not construct a latrine if the government is paying you to do so for the security and wellbeing of the women in the family?
However, in my travels to the various villages and in the various meetings, I was asked the following questions to the above-mentioned talking points:
- If excreta carries germs what about the excreta of dogs and cows and buffaloes? We should also get them to go to latrines?
- There is a railway line which passes near the village and we have all excreta on the line, what about germs?
- Do people with latrines not fall ill?
- We have been going out historically. How are you telling us now it prevents illness?
- If the government is so concerned about the security of our women why do we not get tap water in our houses as our women have to travel miles for water?
- Why doesn’t the government get the construction done and why are you asking us to do it?
- The government pays a small subsidy after construction. The construction takes almost 10 times the subsidy. Where will the poor get the money?
While many experts have cited various reasons for Indians not adopting Individual Household Latrines, the culture of purity and pollution being primary, nobody seems to question the premise, “Why a technology like a latrine is required in a poor country like India”. I have heard and read many studies linking open defecation with diseases and health etc. but have not come across any alternate arguments either with respect to technology options to latrine construction or to any non-technology alternative.
In my 15 odd months of engagement with the project, I was able to convert a couple of villages into open defecation free villages. I am not sure they remained open defecation free or not. After many years of having worked on the project and thinking about why we were able to convert two and why in spite of 22 years having elapsed since the Total Sanitation Project started India is still struggling with open defecation, my belief, today, is that the focus on the technology of individual household latrines construction is misplaced. A video story by “The Quint” can be seen where the whole focus is latrines and their construction.
Here are various arguments to demonstrate why the focus is misplaced along with suggestions on what we can do. Some of the key issues involved in the construction of latrines are :
Sanitation is always linked with water. Before we look at sanitation a mere glance at drinking water in rural India should have raised a red flag for the policymakers. In rural India, as per 2011 census, hand-pump (43.6%) was the leading source of drinking water in households followed by tap water (treated-18% & untreated-13%) and well (covered-1.5% & uncovered-12%). These figures would have changed drastically with the water table going down leading to handpumps and wells going defunct. Hence in 2011, the Government was only able to provide 31% of households with treated and untreated tap water (assuming water came in those taps for at least sufficient time to fill household storage). With 69% of households having no assured water, how do policymakers assume latrine technology will work in rural India?
Census of India 2011 puts rural households at 221 million. Out of these only 206 million were found to be occupied at the time of the census. Out of these 52 million were permanent, 30.1 semi-permanent. Also the same census tells us that good houses in the rural areas are less than half (46 percent). This itself denotes the huge problem which comes in the way of individual household latrines i.e. if a family does not have a good livable permanent house how will they afford or construct a latrine. This should have been red-flagged to the policymakers when they opted for a technology-oriented individual latrine strategy.
On top of the above, a total housing shortage of 48.8 million houses was estimated for the plan period (2012-17) (MoRD 2011). According to it, 90 percent of these shortages are for BPL families which turn out to be 43.93 million houses – a huge red flag for an individual household latrine construction.
3. Subsidy for Construction
The subsidy for individual household latrine construction is larger at Rs 12,000 under Swaacch Bharat Mission compared to the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’s (NBA, 2012-2014) Rs 10,000, and the Total Sanitation Campaign’s (TSC, 2001-2011) Rs 4,500.
Some of the reported facts in this regard by Gupta, Khalid et.al (2019) on “The India Forum” are as under.
Many households in rural India do not want to build or use affordable latrines (Coffey & Spears 2017). Unlike in neighbouring Bangladesh, where inexpensive pit latrines are the norm, many households in rural India prefer expensive latrines with large pits or containment chambers (Coffey et al 2017). Large pits and containment chambers require less frequent emptying than affordable latrine pits, so they help their owners avoid hiring a manual scavenger. Such latrines are, however, substantially more expensive than the Rs 12,000 provided by the SBM. Indeed, the average cost of a latrine that a household constructed itself in the 2018 survey cost nearly three times that much, about Rs 34,000 (Gupta et al 2019).
As noted in the article and as I experienced it firsthand constructing a latrine is substantially more expensive than the subsidy offered. If one was to add the fact that the initial investment has to be done by the household and the cost of recovering the subsidy which usually involved intensive follow up and visiting the BDO (Block Development Office) the whole latrine project is unviable for the household, commercially and, hence, another aspect of hesitation.
4. Community Toilets
One of the aspects of the whole scheme is community toilets. Community toilets are proposed in villages where individual households don’t have land, water, or resources for construction. As per the latest document of Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM), “Community Sanitary Complexes comprising an appropriate number of toilet seats, bathing cubicles, washing platforms, washbasins, etc, can be set up in a place in the village acceptable and accessible to all. The maximum support per unit prescribed for a Community Sanitary Complex is Rs. 2 lakh. Sharing pattern amongst Central Government, State Government, and the Community is in the ratio of 60:30:10.
First and foremost the community toilets can be constructed on panchayat land which is normally far away from where the community stays, secondly nobody owns this structure hence the upkeep of the structure and providing water and cleanliness has no accountability leading to these structures either never being used or going into disuse. I came across many such structures during my tenure which got started, were never completed but on paper were shown as complete, and money utilized providing no benefit to anybody from the community.
There was an idea to allow individual latrines in the community toilets to be allocated to households but as these are far from residences with no ownership, these structures become haunts for anti-social elements of the villages and hence go into disuse. The tragedy of commons as it is known as.
UNICEF on its website has the following about sanitation:
We also support innovation in sanitation; improving sanitation technology; ensuring basic toilets are affordable, accessible, safe; and finding effective sustainable solutions for sanitation challenges that harm children.
However, the prevalent information for rural sanitation in the public domain involves single pit, twin pit, or septic tank toilets. For example, Loughborough University has a detailed guidebook on pit latrines on their website. Between the information disseminated as desirable for sanitation and the construction worker in the village (village mason or plumber etc) who does the latrine construction, there is a huge gap. For example, most village masons or plumbers discourage the construction of pit toilets because most people believe a pit will fill up very fast along with the fact that the septic toilet is what they know along with that a septic tank involves more money for them. Hence pits are constructed less and as septic tanks require huge investments and space most rural households don’t get a latrine constructed.
6. Communication Message
The story by Gupta, Khalid et.al (2019) on “The India Forum”  goes on to state;
Most local officials were also familiar with key messages of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) – that open defecation spreads diseases; that disgust can be used to motivate latrine construction and use; and that in the absence of latrines people who defecate in the open should cover their feces. Despite familiarity with these messages, however, local officials often had little time to pass them on to households.
I am told and also experienced this during my tenure that these talking points in the above message have been handed down by the western agencies which were initially involved either in funding or handholding during the initial start of the sanitation campaign and the message has remained constant and the focus again seems to be on latrine construction rather than on health and hygiene as can be interpreted from the research findings in the above-mentioned story.
There was an interesting anecdote regarding following documentary film made by a UN agency on sanitation which we would show to various stakeholders in Gurgaon. The film was about how this international agency had motivated villages in a district of Maharashtra to stop open defection and focus on Latrines.
One evening, I along with the district’s ADC (Additional Deputy Commissioner), who is the head of the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) drove to the house of a village sarpanch (elected head of a village), gathered his family, and showed them this long documentary. We thought it will be impactful and will be able to pass on the sanitation message. After sitting through and seeing the long documentary the only comment the sarpanch made was “but this was from Maharashtra”. On the surface it appeared that he could not make the connection between the media message of Maharashtra and his home state of Haryana. However, I suspect this was a way to shrug off his responsibility for the village even though he was elected the village head. A simple explanation was that this particular village was near an industrial area and the various households in the village had sublet their houses to industrial labor. The subletting got them a fat rent but they had not taken the responsibility of sanitation and hence all labor (usually 5-10 per room rented out) went out in the open. The sarpanch had no power to either stop the subletting or get the village folks to construct adequate latrines, hence his reluctance thereby deflecting the message.
In fact, the whole story “Coercion, Construction, and ‘ODF paper pe’: Swachh Bharat According to Local Officials” tells you what is wrong with the whole approach of building latrines as a strategy for open defecation free India. The following paragraph explains why latrine construction is the reason for coercion and misplaced focus for an open defecation-free India.
This pressure extended up and down the bureaucracy and is likely to have been an important reason why coercion was so common. The husband of a sarpanch in Madhya Pradesh explained that in his district, “The divisional [CEO] madame got the ration stopped. She did this because people were not getting latrines built in their houses…she did not do anything wrong…she may otherwise not have done this, had she not had pressure of her bosses. She was pressured to get latrines constructed in her jurisdiction.”
The local population, which is supposed to take benefit of a particular development, is not being considered as a stakeholder by the Government of the country, the classic mistake all development communication books and theories talk about, the one which should never be made in social development. People are the reason why any particular development activity is being undertaken and if they are not a part of planning, implementation, and execution, the activity will never be successful.
So the moot question remains: if latrine construction is not to be the focus of sanitation, how can India stop open defecation? We will see some solutions in part 2 of this story.
- Gupta, A , Khalid, N et. al. (April 9, 2019) Coercion, Construction, and ‘ODF paper pe’ : Swachh Bharat According to Local Officials. https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/swachh-bharat-mission-according-local-government-officials retrieved Nov 1, 2021
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About the author
Abhay Chawla teaches mass communication and new media in Delhi University and Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has written courseware for IGNOU, DU and other universities. His two textbooks on New Media and Introduction to Mass Communication have been published by Pearson in 2021.