Speaking the Hindi that he had learned while working in north India, a beggar's husband that we met in a temporary settlement in Bangladesh spoke with us about the sanitation facilities in his community. A short distance from where the 20 or so families had set up their tents, they had constructed a makeshift pit latrine out of black polythene bags and other kaccha materials.
Now this was a sight that we had rarely seen in India, and it was not unique to this particular settlement. In all of the villages that we went to, we saw many latrines built of such materials. We went to Bangladesh to learn about how the country's sanitation revolution happened. It may sound exaggerated to call it a revolution but indeed it was. Over a period of 18 years, households reporting defecating in the open decreased by roughly 25 percentage points to reach a low of 4.6 per cent in 2011. Although open defecation did decrease in India over the same period, it did so at a much slower rate, and was still close to 50 per cent in the 2011 Census.
What struck us during our visits to villages around Dhaka, Mymensingh, Habiganj, and Rajshahi is that a lot of people, even poor people, have built crude pit latrines, just like the one that the beggar's husband used. While we were seeing a number of pucca structures with cement rings lining the pits that collect the waste, cement slabs and pans, and tin superstructures, we also saw a lot of latrines made with informal materials such as polythene bags, strips of tin, or even just rocks. In India, it is rare to see rudimentary latrines like the ones we saw in many villages in Bangladesh, even among poor people.
Indeed, data from the Demographic Health Survey (DHS) also show this difference. In India's most recent DHS, 37 per cent had a toilet that flushes to a sewer system, septic tank, or pit latrine, while 57 per cent defecated in the open. When the same survey was conducted in Bangladesh in the next year, only 12 per cent of households had a toilet that flushes, and only five per cent defecated in the open. What these numbers mean is that a much higher fraction of households in Bangladesh have pit latrines - the middle option - compared to India. While Bangladeshi households mostly get above the minimally healthy threshold of not defecating in the open, households in India are dispersed to the two extremes of best and worst sanitation possibilities.
The same data also show that sanitation in Bangladesh has been taken up by the rich and poor alike.
In India, 21 per cent of households had a dirt floor and no electricity, compared to 52 per cent in Bangladesh in the next year. Clearly, Bangladeshis are poorer, but poor Bangladeshis are more likely to use latrines than poor Indians. Of this impoverished 21 per cent of Indians, fully 84 per cent defecate in the open. In contrast, a mere 28 per cent of the Bangladeshis living in homes with dirt floors and no electricity similarly defecate in the open. The proliferation of pit latrines in Bangladesh has a lot to do with the take-up of sanitation among the less well off.
Who can we thank for this? Well, part of it was probably cultural, but there was also support from many directions starting in the early 2000s when the efforts of the government, large NGOs, and local entrepreneurs all converged on the usage of hygienic latrines. The government of Bangladesh conducted a sanitation census in 2003 that led to the National Sanitation Strategy, which supported a subsidy for the ultra-poor and a prize for unions achieving open defecation-free status similar in principal to the Nirmal Gram Puruskar prize in India.
Around the same time, large multilateral organisations and local NGOs were exploring new methods to promote sanitation usage and help households climb the sanitation ladder by moving from unhygienic latrines to those that safely confine faeces. International development agencies are still pumping a lot of money into funding sanitation programmes in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a famously strong local NGO culture that prioritises sanitation; one in particular has three full-time staff working on sanitation alone in each of the union parishads in which it works.
There has also been substantial innovation among entrepreneurs in developing latrine parts from cheaper materials in Bangladesh, making more affordable latrines than in India. These innovations include plastic pans and concrete rings for pits, both of which allow for the construction of decent, hygienic, latrines for much cheaper than the Rs 4,600 allocated in the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (without the additional subsidy provided through convergence with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).
Although there is no reason to think a magic Bangladeshi formula would work in India, their success should inspire a similar broad collaboration of government bodies, organisations and businesses. One thing is clear: Bangladeshis did it when many people came together because almost everybody agreed that defecating in the open was not acceptable. It shouldn't be acceptable in India either. It's time for a coalition of Indians to bring their creativity to the urgent problem of moving Indians out of the fields and roadsides and into latrines. The limit is not the poverty of our wallets, but the poverty of our commitment.