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Rahul Jacob: Ending open defecation

The issue is deathly serious because widespread open defecation in India often leads to contamination of the water supply

Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Jacob

Nikhil Srivastav is one of the unsung heroes in the effort to clean up what must be, by almost any yardstick, one of the world's dirtiest countries. Mr Srivastav, 28, is a diligent researcher and expert on the subject of open defecation. More than half of India's population defecates in the open. The numbers have not come down much despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bold target of building 110 million toilets and making India free of this practice by 2019. Research shows that people in India seek to build enormous open-pit latrines because they fear the 'polluting' aspects in caste terms of closing and emptying them, even long after the faeces has decomposed. Indian open-pit latrines are thus not as affordable as those built in Bangladesh, say, where less than five per cent of the population defecate in the open.

Even those households in India that have new toilets often tend not to use them. Late last year, a national survey showed that less than half of the toilets built in the Swachh Bharat mission are being used for defecation, but doing duty instead as small granaries or as store rooms. The issue is deathly serious because widespread open defecation in India often leads to contamination of the water supply. In turn, repeated bouts of diarrhea suffered by many toddlers in India contribute to high numbers of children dying before they reach the age of five and malnutrition and impaired learning abilities among those who survive.

Mr Srivastav, like other experts in the field, believes that the Indian government needs to recast its effort to communicate the benefits of not defecating in the open. "They (the government) are counting the number of toilets instead of counting the number of open defecators," says Mr Srivastav, who has done recent field trips to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, and argues that even the emphasis in television advertisements on it being a safe way for women to go to the toilet rather risk molestation outdoors has backfired. "We have found that people believe toilets are for the infirm and women."

During China's Great Leap Forward in the 1960s, Mao Zedong's obsession with catching up with the west prompted cadres seeking to win a competition to claim they had sowed wheat that was so thick that children could stand on top of it. In fact, in an early example of Photoshopping, cadres had made children stand on benches, as Jasper Becker reports in his book on the famine. In the photos sent back to Beijing as examples of the success of so-called close planting mandated by the leadership, no one could tell the difference.

Swachh Bharat also risks becoming an exercise in meeting numerical targets in terms of building toilets while the social ill of open defecation remains unchecked. Between April and December 2015, 7.68 million toilets were built in rural households across India, a significant increase from the roughly five million built in the last full year of the previous government, 2013-2014. But, usage patterns remain unchanged and anecdotal evidence suggests the government's big push might even be contributing to corruption since in many cases, funds are being funneled through village leaders without adequate administrative oversight to see that toilets are actually being built or are functional. Mr Srivastav, who works with Rice, a not-for-profit that seeks to understand the lives of poor people, reports that in Rajasthan a pradhan (village head) showed him two photos of the same toilet with two different people belonging to different households. "It had been Photoshopped. That's because of these ambitious targets," he says. There may be toilets for girls in every school in the country as this government reports at regular intervals, but many are not functional. Mr Modi credited his government with this achievement in his rousing speech to the diaspora at Wembley last year, but Mr Srivastav has found that several schools have toilets that don't function because they are not maintained, are broken or have no water. "Many times when they are functional, they remain locked and are opened only for teachers or for visitors to use. This has been (my experience) several times," Mr Srivastav says.

A similar "it's broken, and let's take credit for fixing it" approach applies to the Congress-led government's Right to Education campaign. Enrollment in schools is up at record levels, though this is partly because parents across India are realising the importance of educating their children, but learning outcomes are about as poor as ever with about half the children in class 5 struggling with the curriculum of a class 2 student, according to the annual survey done by Pratham, the educational non-governmental organisation. As Ambit Capital's Saurabh Mukherjea reports after a trip to rural Uttar Pradesh, the bright side of India is seeing "yellow tempos taking kids to private schools, including plenty of girls." The grim side, he says, is the widespread failure of governance and associated organised corruption in rural India.

Despite all the publicity accorded the Swachh Bharat initiative, no one in the government has approached the researchers at Rice to seek information on the usage and adoption of toilets in rural India. Under Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, the organisation has arguably done the best research on how widespread open defecation is in India and the social attitudes that make it so prevalent. Given the damaging impact on public health from defecating in fields and by the roadside in urban areas, a government so publicly casting about for big ideas ought to have done so by now.

Twitter: @RahulJJacob

First Published: Wed, January 20 2016. 21:49 IST