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The reality of open defecation in India

The reality of open defecation in India

By Aparna Sivaraman and Geetika Khanduja

Open defecation, as defined by UNICEF, refers to the practice whereby people go out in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water, or other open spaces rather than using the toilet to defecate.

Implications of the practice

The practice is rampant in India and the country is home to the world’s largest population of people who defecate in the open and excrete close to 65,000 tonnes of faeces into the environment each day.

The impacts of open defecation are wide and plenty. On the health front, the most common consequences of this morbid practice include diarrhoea, intestinal worm infection, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and several others. Apart from this, malnutrition and stunted growth are also common consequences.

Additionally, the lack of safe private toilets makes women vulnerable as they face a greater risk of sexual molestation and rape. Such practices also pose an impediment to the education of girls.

Does history repeat itself?

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of open defecation was not prevalent in India until the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Archaeological remains of the civilisation, which grew around the regions of Harappa and Mohenjadaro, show that water- borne toilets were common in the area. Known to possess excellent knowledge of sanitary engineering, the Harappans built toilets for each home that connected to a well-designed sewage system. However, with the decline of the civilisation, the system became confined to history and open defecation became rampant.

Misalignment between reported data and reality

The Swacchata Status Report, released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation in 2016, shows that an estimated 52.1 percent of rural Indians practice open defecation, with states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha topping the list. Urban India, however, paints a much better picture with open defecation being practised by a meagre 7.5% of the population. The report also praises the efforts of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan which is said to have led to the construction of over 5.8 million toilets during the year 2014-15.

Contrary to the government data, ground realities have an altogether different story to tell. Various reports and investigations have revealed that open defecation continues to be a frequent practice. A field study carried out in some villages of Sonipat district of Haryana, that was declared open defecation free in July 2017, also showed similar results. Although there were toilets in the houses, most Anganwadis lacked sanitation facilities and adequate water supply. 

Challenges expected along the way

Although open defecation might seem as a problem arising out of infrastructural constraints, the issue has several dimensions that need to be taken into consideration. It must be understood as a mixture of several cultural, social and demographic reasons.  The biggest challenge in its eradication that people are unwilling to discuss and understand the consequences of the taboo subject. In order to overcome this challenge, efforts must be taken to encourage communities to come together and openly discuss the issue. Non-governmental organisations have an integral role to play in this regard by facilitating a dialogue among the various stakeholders.

A key failure of the various government measures is the lack of involvement of the communities in the decision-making process. Current solutions are not effective because they are either too expensive, mismanaged or not managed at all. The design of the toilet must be made keeping in mind the geographic and cultural context so that these toilets are acceptable to the local population. This includes the provision of alternate facilities in water-deficient areas and difficult terrain.

The need of the hour

There is a need for integrating Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) elements into the government programme. The Gram Panchayats who are one of the main actors do not benefit from the SBCC drive to stimulate demand for toilets. Providing some kind of incentive to families that refrain from defecating in the open is also a viable solution. Another solution may be to make school going children aware of the ill effects of open defecation, thus encouraging them to take up this discussion at their respective homes.

The site selection for building public toilets must take into consideration the safety of women. The area must be well-lit and not deserted. Constructed public toilets can be managed by women self-help groups who will work responsibly since women and children are the most vulnerable groups in terms of the ill impacts of this practice. This will also improve their condition within the household by empowering them financially.

Solutions to open defecation must ensure a critical assessment of existing policies and programmes, taking into consideration both decision-makers and intended beneficiaries. This may be in the form of development and dissemination of public awareness material, targeting communities, leadership in educational institutions and heads of households. To conclude, as our Honourable Prime Minister rightly said, “Toilet first, Temple later”.


Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt

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