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Why Eradicating Open Defecation Is Not the Same as Setting up New Toilets

Why Eradicating Open Defecation Is Not the Same as Setting up New Toilets

The Madrampura Basti community toilet. Photo: Sujeet Kumar

  • India has reduced open defecation and made some progress to improve sanitation services. But its sanitation system is not yet sustainable and not yet safe.
  • In Tapoban Basti in Bhubaneswar, some men avoid using the toilet every day to not have to incur the cost of cleaning out the septic tank.
  • In a basti on the outskirts of Jaipur, a community toilet slowly ran out of water and the pay-per-use facility became filthy, forcing people in the neighbourhood to defecate in a nearby field.
  • Both these cities have been declared open-defecation-free, yet their poorer communities still don’t have access to basic sanitation.

Nearly 673 million people still practice open defecation around the world. Some 3.6 billion people also use sanitation services that don’t meet the standard of safely managed sanitation of the WHO and UNICEF’s Joint Management Programme indicators.

In India, the government has made special efforts to stop open defecation and has supported the construction of individual household latrines and community toilet complexes across the country. Around 10.9 crore individual latrines have been constructed under the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’. However, newly built toilets have a larger share of single pit latrines, which present safety, sustainability and cost-effectiveness problems.

All villages and almost 99% of towns have been declared open-defecation-free. The third round (2019-2020) of the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey reported that 94.4% of households in India have access to a toilet and that nearly 90% of them always use the toilets.

However, experts and grassroots organisations have highlighted critical inconsistencies in these figures. The fifth National Family Health Survey (2019-2021) reported that 19% of households don’t use any toilet facility, and that access to toilet facilities is lowest in Bihar (62%), Jharkhand (70%) and Odisha (71%). And overall, the number of people defecating in the open had decreased from 39% in 2015-2016 to 19% in 2019-2021.

Field evidence has exposed a different set of challenges to sustaining the sanitation system in the longer run. These include reaching the poorest and most marginalised groups of society, providing sanitation services to the urban poor living in inadequate housing conditions, and ensuring they are able to use sanitation services in times of economic hardship and limited resources and – most notably – periodically emptying tanks and ensuring the safe disposal of septage.

One such urban settlement – Tapoban Basti in Bhubaneswar – has some 800 households. Almost 80% of them have a toilet. However, male members of the families in at least 20% of these houses avoid using the toilet every day because they are worried that it will get filled soon and the family will have to incur the cost of emptying it.

In addition, members of 20% of households that failed to construct latrines due to lack of space usually go to a community toilet complex near the settlement, which opens for certain hours in the morning and the evening. But it is still about a kilometre away and it is a pay-and-use service.

Kamala, a resident of Tapoban Basti who is in her 70s and who suffered an accident during last year’s rains, said that even though she has money to pay for the service, it is difficult to travel a kilometre to defecate. Many others, on the other hand, are able to travel the distance but can’t afford to spare the money, so they visit a field adjacent to the basti (Hindi for ‘slum’) instead.

According to Kamala, the number of people defecating in this field increased during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, when most households suffered a big drop in income.

Similarly, the Rajasthan state government gave another settlement in the outskirts of Jaipur, called Madrampura Katchi Basti, a community toilet complex in 2018. It had adequate water supply at first but that gradually dwindled, and the toilets became filthy. The concerned officials didn’t take notice of the community’s grievance, according to the settlement’s informal leader, a man named Sabudin.

So most of the basti’s dwellers now defecate in the open.

Sabudin, the pradhan of the Madrampura Katchi Basti. Photo: Sujeet Kumar

The residents of the 50 or so households of the Harding Park slum, about a kilometre away from the Patna secretariat, also defecate in the open because they lack a toilet.

All of these cities – Bhubaneswar, Jaipur and Patna – have been declared open-defecation-free and they have been placed on the list of India’s upcoming ‘Smart Cities’. Yet their poorer communities still don’t have access to basic sanitation.

Given that this is the case, it is essential that the state as well as national governments focus on plugging these gaps by installing toilets in ensuring people can access them and equipping them with a continuous supply of clean water.

Second, governments should not stop maintaining these facilities the moment they become usable. Instead, they ought to find ways to ensure the toilets remain clean, the waste is regularly carried away and the sludge is safely disposed.

The Bhubaneswar city administration is already working to ensure septic tanks are emptied in period fashion, and at an affordable cost, using a community-centred approach and a faecal sludge management system.

Inclusivity also matters: for example, Jaipur city officials have resolved to install signage at each community toilet to encourage transgender people to use it as well.

The sanitation value chain and its sustainability depend on slippage rates that depend on affordability, the toilets’ location, opening time, usage fees and accessibility. To reduce slippage, we need to strengthen all of social, institutional and behavioural sustainability – through community engagement and regular interactions between stakeholders.

India has reduced open defecation and made some progress to improve sanitation services. But its sanitation system is not yet sustainable and not yet safe. In tandem, the government also needs to boost The income of poorer households, so that during pandemics and other times of socio-economic distress, their access to good sanitation is not affected.

Sujeet Kumar is an independent researcher based in Delhi. He received his PhD from the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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