The Modi government has succeeded in ramping up the pace of toilet construction across the country. But the next and more important step is to make people use them
Transforming the concept of cleanliness into a national movement through Swachh Bharat has been considered one of Modi’s greatest achievements as Prime Minister. The image of India as the country with the highest rate of open defecation still compels even the most patriotic of us to sober down and contemplate. Indeed, we should have sorted out this massive social issue years ago.
It’s not just the image of course. The World Health Organisation said in August that Swachh Bharat could save 3 lakh lives if it met its target of making India open-defecation-free by October 2, 2019. The idea has won praise from across the world, with Microsoft Co-founder Bill Gates tweeting in October, “The leadership of @narendramodi and the Indian government has played an important role in improving sanitation. Now is the time to build on the success of @swachhbharat.”
How successful has it actually been so far? According to the latest update on the website, around 90.73 million toilets have been built so far since the launch of the mission and 5,37,763 villages, 572 districts, and 26 states/UTs have been declared open defecation free (ODF).
But the ODF status has more to do with actual toilet coverage, and not on usage. As the film Toiletaptly showcased, the mindset challenge is perhaps much bigger than the challenge of availability. The NSSO survey reveals that 33% of people in rural India and 4% of people in urban India still defecate in the open.
However, the World Bank says that the statistics are even worse and 48% of Indians still defecate in the open. Also, around 40% of households with toilets have members who continue with this practice.
The study by Varun Gauri, Tasmia Rahma and Iman Sen analyzed data from five villages in UP on four aspects of open defecation – defecation practices, the acceptability of open defecation, enforcement of toilet use, and notions of purity attached to toilet construction. They note that the need for conformance is high – beliefs of people have a strong linkage to their perception of what others believe. In this regard, they are prone to underestimating the use of toilets among other families in the vicinity.
So the study reveals that telling people about the growing use of toilets in their neighborhood and reducing preference for open defecation may bring the much-needed change. People have to also be told through well-targeted information campaigns that toilets are clean, as opposed to their general perception of them being dirty.
Now that the government has managed to ramp up the pace of toilet construction across India, the next step is to make sure that people use them. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to end India’s inglorious number 1 rank in open defecation globally, that we cannot miss.