By Ananya Bhradwaj
A problem that plagues India and threatens the environment at the same time is a grave one – open defecation. Over half of all Indians defecate in the open, and in rural areas, almost 70% of households do not have a toilet or latrine. In contrast, less than 1% of people in China, 4% of people in Bangladesh, and about 25% of people in sub-Saharan Africa defecate in the open. It is extremely prevalent in rural areas and continues to be a menace despite publicity and awareness being drawn to this issue by ventures like Swachh Bharat Shauchalaya Yojana, and films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.
Cultural reservations to ending open defecation
Indeed, the need to periodically empty latrine pits is an important social obstacle to latrine adoption in rural India. Privately constructed latrines tend to be very expensive because they have large pits that rarely need to be emptied. Further, cleaning faeces, and by extension emptying pits, is associated with “untouchables”— the lowest group in the caste system. People think that having latrines near the house is polluting according to ancient rituals and norms. Villagers are actually supportive of the perceived benefits of open defecation; it is associated with good health and a wholesome rural life. Many people, including women, say they enjoy open defecation because they don’t have to be around men of the household in a moment of privacy.
Why open defecation continues in India?
People living in rural areas often associate open defecation with good health and with a healthy rural life. People living in households in which someone uses a latrine thought open defecation was healthier than latrine use. This may be so because open defecation is associated with rising early and being industrious, as well as with strength and exposure to healthy fresh air. Many people who defecate in the open despite having access to their own latrine explain that they do so because they find it enjoyable and healthy.
Muslims in rural India are often an exception to this rule. Since ideas about ritual purity and pollution are typically different for Muslims, they are more likely to build and use the kinds of simple, affordable latrines that save lives in the rest of the developing world. The National Family Health Survey 3 (NFHS-3) found that while 77% of rural Hindu households defecate in the open, 55% of rural Muslims households defecate in the open.
Need for tackling open defecation soon?
The dangers that lack of hygiene poses to those indulging in open defecation should be made more apparent to people so as to raise awareness about health and sanitation. Women are at a threat too, since they wake up extremely early in the day, often around 4 am and cover long distances to defecate since they cannot do that in their own homes or around men. There have been several news reports of atrocities being committed against these women who are often alone or defenceless in such situations. If awareness about the benefits of toilets and defecation systems within the confines of one’s home is propounded, these crimes can also be reduced to a significant extent.
Behaviour change that is focused on building demand for affordable latrines should be the cornerstone of sanitation interventions. Merely constructing closed spaces for defecation will not be an effective redressal to this problem till people are actually willing to step forward and use this initiative. The societal mindset needs to change in order to have the true effectiveness of such measures and interventions.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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