It has been a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his flagship Swacch Bharat Mission, which aims to eliminate open defecation in India by 2019. Now, only four years remain to meet this important, yet still quite elusive, goal. So what has been achieved since the programme was inaugurated last year?

In the past year, India added more than 75 million internet users, more than 50 million wireless telephone subscribers, over 10 million Facebook users, and set the world record for the largest yoga class on the first International Day of Yoga. Over this same period, the fraction of the world’s open defecation that happens in India has most certainly increased. I say "most certainly" because the Indian government doesn’t actually collect this data, leaving us researchers to make only educated guesses.

It is now a well-known fact that many rural Indians defecate in the open despite having a toilet. Even the Swacch Bharat Mission guidelines incorporated the overwhelming body of evidence documenting this fact by calling for national-level monitoring of latrine use. Unfortunately, though, this call has gone entirely unanswered. Here we are, with one only four years to go, without any data with which to measure the Swacch Bharat Mission’s progress towards achieving its goal, and without any word from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation on whether such data will be collected in any of the remaining four years of the programme.

Slow growth

Using household-level data from the Government’s National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2005-2006, and Rapid Survey of Children, conducted in 2013-2014, open defecation in rural India seems to be declining at only about one percentage point per year. But if India is going to meet Modi’s goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019, that decline would need to be more than 15 percentage points per year, a decline that would be unprecedented.

At r.i.c.e., we marked the first anniversary of the Swacch Bharat Mission  by co-hosting a Conference on Purity, Untouchability, and Open Defecation with the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University on September 29. The tidiness of the room was a poor cover for the messiness of the problem at hand: the links between widespread open defecation in rural India and rural Indians' views on purity and untouchability.

In session after session, researchers presented more and more evidence of the role that beliefs in purity and pollution and the continuing practice of untouchability play in the persistence of open defecation in rural India.

Qualitative research conducted by r.i.c.e. was presented showing that rural Indians associate emptying a latrine pit by hand with manual scavenging, and because of this, are unlikely to use the kinds of inexpensive latrines promoted by the Indian government and used commonly in most other developing countries in the world. While emptying a latrine pit by hand in other countries is perhaps undesirable, it doesn’t carry the same social stigma that it does here in India. Instead of using inexpensive, simple latrines, rural Indians prefer using latrines with pits that are so massive that they won’t have to be emptied even after a generation of use. Of course, latrines with such large pits are expensive, and so only a small fraction of rural households can afford to build them.

Purity norms

Amit Thorat, assistant professor at JNU, presented quantitative evidence using data from the large, nationally-representative India Human Development Study that strongly reinforced the findings of the qualitative study. Using a novel question in the study asks households whether they practice untouchability, he showed that households that live in villages where a greater fraction of their neighbors practice untouchability are more likely to defecate in the open. Of course, it’s not practicing untouchability per se that is important, but instead the norms of purity and pollution and the degree to which they are practiced in the community that play an important role in household sanitation decisions.

Dr. SanghmitraAcharya, director of the Indian Institute for Dalit Studies and professor at JNU, discussed the extreme social exclusion and poor working conditions experienced by sanitation workers in India, who are largely from the dalit community. Under such circumstances, it’s no big surprise that the market for pit-emptying in rural India has broken down.

Researchers and policy panelists both agreed that beliefs in purity and pollution rooted in the caste system play an important role in explaining widespread open defecation in India. Now that this evidence has been established, what can be done? Is it possible to design evidence-based sanitation policy in order to address these issues?

 Some solutions

Perhaps policies could accommodate these beliefs, such as by providing government latrines with larger pits or offering pit-emptying services. Or they could try to correct them, by educating villagers about how the twin-pit latrines promoted by the government work, and how long they take to fill. We could also imagine policies, however unlikely they may be, that try to get people to be less concerned about purity and pollution, such that more people are willing to empty their own latrine pits, or at least not treat the people who do so poorly.

In order for any of this to happen, though, sanitation policy makers need to both admit the importance of the role that caste and untouchability play, and then act on it. Much of this research was available a year ago, at the time that the SBM guidelines were drafted, and yet, the Swacch Bharat Mission  did not address the reasons why many people in rural India do not want to use latrines. Similarly, even though the Swacch Bharat Mission  guidelines addressed the evidence of open defecation among latrine owners by calling for latrine use monitoring, such monitoring remains elusive. Considering this, is it reasonable to expect to be able to change the course of the current Swacch Bharat Mission? I certainly hope so. The well-being of India’s children depends on it.

Sangita Vyas is the Managing Director for Sanitation at r.i.c.e.