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Shift Focus Away From Latrine Construction to Achieve an Open Defecation Free India: Swachh Bharat

*This is Part Two of the Two-Part Article Series on India’s ODF Challenge*

Read Part 1 Here ->

Human behavior is dependent on culture, with culture adapting to available resources along with 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 in the sanitation campaign and the message has remained constant. To achieve an open defecation free country, India must look at the state of its communities across the country rather than impose a ‘one-nation, one-fit’ solution or a western model. The only way ahead is to focus on health and hygiene by focusing on the accessibility and availability of water and soaps, and not on latrines.

As shown in part 1 of this article series, due to various constraints like water, lack of housing, lack of money for construction etc. the focus of latrine construction as the only strategy for an open defecation free (ODF) country is running into major bottlenecks.

Let me share this funny anecdote from Haryana about a type of latrine called “Dhamaka Tatti” or “Dhamaka Latrine”. I heard this anecdote in various districts of Haryana. As the focus was on latrine construction right from the onset of the sanitation program and a key aspect of the message communication was that “open defection was bad because of the germs they spread, hence a deep hole (pit) to contain the excreta was a good option”, people started making latrines with nothing but three temporary walls, an entrance covered with a cloth for privacy and a deep hole in the ground for containment of excreta.

This created many other unintended problems but the reason why this went on to become the butt of various jokes was when a Haryanvi old man (Choudhury) sat on this hole for his morning chores and, as is the norm, lit a beedi throwing the lighted match in the pit on which he was sitting, there was an explosion (Dhamaka) due to the accumulation of methane gas due to excreta. This anecdote further made the villagers suspicious about latrines.

So the moot question remains if latrine construction is not to be the focus of Sanitation, how can India stop open defecation?

When one starts with the premise that open defecation leads to the spread of germs harmful to the health and hygiene of the individual and community leading to an increase in health expenditure and hence reducing economic activity, one naturally zeros in to a conclusion – construct individual household latrines.  There is no argument against this. However, the strategy to follow to achieve this can vary, and India must look at the state of its communities across the country rather than impose a ‘one-nation, one-fit’ solution or a western model as that will never work for as big, as diverse and as impoverished a nation as India.

Let’s discuss some alternate ideas and see how they fare.

  1. The focus of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, as of Nirmal Bharat and Total Sanitation Campaign**, should have been health and hygiene without the insistence of latrines.
    • The simple thumb rule of any technology adoption is, if it is good and affordable and accessible, people will get to know about the technology from the early movers and adopt technology on their own with it having to be sold. Look at mobile phones, TV or any technology. Once it was affordable and accessible and people understood its uses and benefits, they adopted it inspite of class, caste, religion, region or sex.
    • Instead of latrine construction, if health and hygiene had become the focus, the communication and messaging would have been easy as well the efforts required by the understaffed rural agencies, extension agents and NGO’s. With no targets for latrines, there would have been less corruption and more chances that when a household constructed a latrine, it would be used by the household, i.e. an ownership of the latrine. It would have been a slow and gradual process but a sure success. An easy way to understand it is when one looks at urban housing units where the household owns the latrine and nobody has to be motivated to construct one.
    • But there are other reasons why urban households come with a latrine and a functional sewage system: no space for urban dwellers to go out for open defection and, most importantly, the cultural messaging that excreta is pollution and harmful and there is shame in open defection.  However, in urban settlements where there are constraints of water and space we again see open defection, like in slums and other hutments etc., where instead of shame the constituents are constrained to defecate in open.
    • Maybe this urban mindset of having a latrine and willing to pay for the water and sewage cost is what the policy makers based their rural ‘swachhta’ premise on and planned accordingly. If any of the policy and scheme designer were to travel to any rural area and talk to the community they would have planned otherwise realizing the constraints of land, water, resources etc.
    • Instead of the latrine technology, if the focus had been on washing hands (something which UNICEF focuses on with their WASH campaign) after defection, I believe the program implementation would have been more efficient. Let me explain how. Many people in rural areas either don’t wash hands immediately or wash it with mud when they go open defecating. There is a culture of mud being thought of as a cleansing agent (By the way, one can check this premise in local dhabas and small eateries where one of the items used for cleaning utensils and hands is mud). If this can change, especially since mud carries microbes harmful to health, India would have made a lot of progress. Children, especially in the rural settings, are extremely vulnerable in an open defecation setting as they forget to wash hands and start playing. Washing hands with soap would have ensured a cheaper accessible technology of soap to be made available to people across the country leading to a culture where they were ready for the next technology of latrines.
  2. The focus should have been creating local village level sewage systems wherever water was available.
    • Water is a prerequisite for creating sewage systems. For villages connected by potable water or tap water, the government or local administration should have spent money in creating small sewage systems for which various technologies are available. This would have not only got the sanitation problem under control but would also have created jobs and pushed the organic agriculture in a big way with manure now locally available. Besides this, it would have freed the people who having spending power to spend money on just the latrines instead of spending it in wasteful septic tanks (wasteful in both space and expenditure) or hard to do single/dual pits.
    • This would have also helped in rain water and wastewater disposal in these villages which is a major issue in villages with rain and waste water creating a nuisance and breeding mosquitoes.
    • Once the sewage systems were created in addition to a culture of washing hands with soap, people would have found it easy to construct latrines. The poor could have been able to do it at a minimum of cost with only the basic pot and temporary enclosure, while the rich could have spent more in making the superstructure and overhead water tanks for flushing.
    • The community toilets were no longer needed once local sewage system allowed toilets in village chaupal, village school and village Primary Health Center (PHC) or village barat ghar. The money saved from community toilet construction could have been used in the village sewage system or easy accessibility of soap.
  3. For villages without water, or with households with a functional handpump or water source, the insistence should be on washing hands with soap. The focus should be to get tap water in each household while parallelly constructing local sewage systems depending on the finances available. Again, once water comes in each household and there is a culture of washing hands with soap, a sewage system would be the natural scaling up leading to the construction of individual household latrines.

It’s been 22 years since the sanitation program started in this country with the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999 and yet from the story – “Here’s Why India Is Struggling to Be Truly Open Defecation Free”  in “The Wire” – one can clearly see that the latrine approach is not working and India is struggling to end open defecation. The following from the above story explains the struggle succinctly: 

“We have been defecating in the open for many years, it has become more of a habit now. Toilets constructed in households are mostly left unused. We tried using it but the sludge flows through drains, which are located right in front of our house. It is a 10-15 minute walk to the jungle where we find it is safe to openly defecate”, says Vandana Kumari, a resident of the village. 

No one knows exactly the total amount of money that has been pumped into the Total Sanitation Campaign, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan and, now, the Swachh Bharat Mission. I think it would be prudent for policymakers to cut their losses and acknowledge that the program has plateaued in reaching its objectives and the only way forward is a fresh thought and approach instead of pumping more money into a project which has lost its way in the deserts of rural India.

The only way ahead is to focus on Health and Hygiene by focusing on the accessibility and availability of water and soaps and not on latrines. In fact, the whole focus of the UNICEF campaign is Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). Their website states: 

Growing up in a clean and safe environment is every child’s right. Access to clean water, basic toilets, and good hygiene practices not only keeps children thriving, but also gives them a healthier start in life.

UNICEF does not focus on just latrine construction.

History has shown that coercion can go only up to a particular extent even in politics, for development it has further limitations and after a point of inflection, law of diminishing returns sets in. That point seems to have long passed. It’s time for a fresh approach which is India specific. As UNICEF states on its website, “Sanitation is about more than just toilets. Behaviours, facilities and services together provide the hygienic environment children need to fight diseases and grow up healthy.

 Picture from the UNICEF website focusing on handwash

** Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was launched by the Government of India to cover all households with sanitation facilities and promote hygiene behaviour, initially in 1999 and was extended in phases to various districts in the country by 2004. The Scheme was renamed as ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’ (NBA) to accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas to achieve the vision of Nirmal Bharat by 2022 with all Village Panchayats in the Country attaining open defecation free status. The unit cost was enhanced to Rs.10,000 inclusive of assistance through convergence with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The incentive provided under the scheme for construction of Individual Household Latrines (IHHL) for Below Poverty Line (BPL) Households was also extended to Above Poverty Line (APL) Households in 2012, but restricted to SCs/STs, Small and Marginal farmers, Landless Labourers with homestead, Differently Abled and Women Headed households. GOI launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) on 2nd October 2014, the successor programme of NBA, to accelerate the efforts to achieve universal sanitation coverage and to achieve Swachh Bharat by 2019.

Read Part 1 Here ->

  1. http://www.ijhssi.org/papers/v3(4)/Version-3/I03403050060.pdf
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319037923_Rural_Housing_in_India_Status_and_Policy_Challenges
  3. https://tnrd.gov.in/schemes/cen_nba_15.html
  4. https://www.unicef.org/wash/sanitation
  5. 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
  6. Sharma, Ananya( Oct 28, 2021) Here’s Why India Is Struggling to Be Truly Open Defecation Free: Why is it that even with an increase in households with improved sanitation conditions, India is not meeting its ODF expectations?  https://thewire.in/government/heres-why-india-is-struggling-to-be-truly-open-defecation-free  retrieved Nov1, 2021.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author solely. TheRise.co.in neither endorses nor is responsible for them.

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.

Abhay Chawla

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.

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