How effective has the Swachh Bharat Mission been? A new sanitation survey conducted in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh has news that is both good and bad.

Open defecation has reduced by 26 percentage points in the four years since Swachh Bharat was launched, from 70% in 2014 to 44% in 2018. The prevelance of household toilets has also shot up in the four northern states, from 37% in 2014 to 71% in 2018. However, attitudes towards open defecation have barely changed at the individual level: 23% of people who own latrines still prefer to defecate in the open, a figure that has remained the same since 2014.

These statistics are from a survey titled “Changes in open defecation in rural north India: 2014-2018”, which will be released as a working paper on January 9. They study was conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics or RICE) a non-profit research and policy advocacy group, and Accountability Initiative, a research group at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

The study presents a comprehensive analysis of the successes and failures of the Narendra Modi government’s much-publicised Swachh Bharat Mission, which aims to make India open defecation-free by October 2, 2019. While the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have officially declared themselves 100% open defecation-free, and Uttar Pradesh has almost reached this target, the RICE survey reveals that open defecation actually continues in all of these states.

The survey highlights two other significant revelations. One is that the implementation of Swachh Bharat has been accompanied by a disturbing amount of threats, coercion and violence, which puts the ethics of the programme’s rollout in question. Second, caste-based notions of purity and impurity play a role in determining open defecation choices and the kind of latrines that households choose to build in rural north India.

Open defecation despite toilet

The study chose to focus on Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan not only because they house around 40% of India’s rural population, but also because they were known to have high rates of open defecation. The researchers first surveyed 3,235 households in north India in 2014, a few months before the launch of Swachh Bharat, and then revisited many of the same households to interview 9,812 people in 2018.

Unlike the central government’s National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-’18, which measured open defecation by the rate of toilet construction in households, the RICE survey collected both household-level and individual-level data. “We looked at behaviour at the person level, which turned out to matter a lot,” said Sangita Vyas, one of the authors of the working paper on the results of the RICE survey. “We found that many people choose not to use a latrine despite their households having one.”

The survey found, for instance, 40% of households that own a toilet have at least one person who defecates in the open. The overall decline in open defecation from 2014 to 2018 is encouraging, but it can be attributed to a general increase in latrine ownership – not to any internal behaviour change among individuals.

The role of caste

The RICE study contains a detailed analysis of the kind of latrines that households in rural north India opt for when they decide to construct toilets. In different states, the amount and nature of government support for latrine construction differed. Some states gave out government subsidies directly to households so that they could construct toilets themselves; other states preferred hiring contractors to build toilets for individual households.

In its public awareness campaigns for Swachh Bharat, the government has been promoting “twin-pit” latrines the most. These are latrines with two underground pits for the collection of faeces: when one pit is full, it can be closed so that its contents can decompose and turn into fertiliser that can be used in farms. Twin-pit latrines are relatively affordable and can be constructed within Rs 12,000.

However, the study found that twin-pit latrines were among the least preferred form of toilets in most households. Just 25% of the latrine-owning households opted for twin pits, while 40% had single-pits. Interestingly, 31% preferred septic tanks or containment chambers – an expensive option given that they require suction machines to clean out.

“People want to build expensive latrines because they have larger pits that take longer to fill up, which delays the point when they have to be emptied,” said Vyas. “People who live in households with larger pits are less likely to defecate in the open.”

Notions of caste purity and untouchability, says Vyas, also drive the preference for larger single pits or septic tanks, which need cleaning less frequently. Smaller pits, such as those constructed in twin-pit latrines, are emptied manually, a job typically performed by the lowest of the lower caste groups. “Many rural Indians don’t want to clean the tanks themselves, and because the exploitation and exclusion of Dalits is being challenged in India, many have abandoned the degrading work associated with their oppression. So it is now harder to hire someone to clean out pits,” she said.

Religious demographic data collected in the survey is also very telling. The survey found that Muslim latrine owners were less likely to defecate in the open than Hindu latrine owners. Vyas believes this is because Muslims are less likely to share the same ideas of purity and impurity as caste Hindus.

Source: Research Institute for Compassionate Economics
Source: Research Institute for Compassionate Economics

How long will threats and coercion work?

A disturbing trend highlighted in the study is the social cost of implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission: the threats and coercion that citizens face from local officials cracking down on open defecation. Researchers found that 56% of survey respondents were aware of some form of coercive state action occurring in their village, while 12% had faced harassment or coercion in their own households.

In some cases, people were harassed in order to stop them from defecating in the open, in other cases, people were threatened that their social welfare benefits – including food rations – would be cut off. Most often, the pressure was for building toilets, but in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh, people faced harassment about the use of toilets.

Not surprisingly, the study found that among latrine owners, Dalit households were almost twice as likely to face such harassment, while Adivasi groups were almost three times more likely to be coerced.

Source: Research Institute for Compassionate Economics
Source: Research Institute for Compassionate Economics

Surveyors found that latrine use rates were as high as 80% in households that constructed toilets because of lack of open space or for personal convenience, but in households that built toilets only because of pressure from village officials, latrine use rates were just 45%. “These findings raise uncertainty about whether latrine use among new latrine owners will be sustained when the environment of enforcement and coercion diminishes,” the working paper on the study says.