Why ‘Swachh Bharat’ is Losing Steam

In spite of the 8 million new toilets constructed, patterns of toilet usage haven’t changed much. Analysing cultural variations in toilet use provides surprising insights into why this might be so, and what can be done to change it.

Open air defecation in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Credit: rpb1001/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Open air defecation in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Credit: rpb1001/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to see a clean India. In 2014, he launched the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission), a supply-side initiative that plans to build 110 million toilets across India by 2019. The underlying presumption is that India has a large poor population which cannot afford to construct a toilet, and therefore there is a need for government intervention.

A year down the line, nothing much has changed. In spite of the government constructing 8 million toilets in 2015, India still has the highest number of people defecating in the open worldwide (around 595 million). In a working paper I co-authored along with Anurag Banerjee and Ashvika Dalmis, we attempt to analyse why this is the case.

Ranking preference for having a toilet vis-à-vis 20 other consumer durables – such as a mattress, bicycle, electric fan, television, motorcycle, mobile telephone, refrigerator, tractor and computer – toilets get a much lower preference, ranked 12 out of 21.

If the government is spending money on toilets even when there is no demand for toilet use, it can be counterproductive. Ideally, the government should spend money in a way such that returns from each additional rupee spent on various social sectors give a benefit. Otherwise, the money spent will result in a budget deficit, and eventually inflation.

Religious variation

Examining National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-3) data from India brings out interesting insights. For instance, religion and caste play an important role in determining whether an individual is likely to use toilets. India is distinctive in terms of having diverse cultures, religions and castes. All of these vary across states. The religion variables demonstrate that the odds of a Muslim household using a toilet is 5.4 times higher than a Hindu household. A Christian household is 1.3 times more likely to adopt toilet use in comparison to their Hindu counterparts. Hindu households have the lowest coverage of sanitation facilities in comparison to other religions.

This result is surprising, as Indian Muslims are on average both poorer and less educated than Hindus. There could be two plausible reasons for this result.

First, there may be a historical path-dependency related to religion that encourages open defecation among Hindus. Open defecation among Hindu households is due to the caste system, where the customary circumvention of excreta is sustained by keeping defecation away from the house and entrusting the clean-up job to the so-called ‘untouchables’ or lower castes.

Second, this gap may not be related to religious differences at all but to the fact that Muslims are more likely to live in urban areas relative to the Hindus. The conditional probability of the household residing in the urban areas is 0.45 for Hindu and 0.55 for Muslims. Spatially, households living in urban areas are 19 times more likely to use toilet in comparison to their rural counterparts.

Caste differences

The caste system matters when studying this phenomenon. Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Class (OBC) households have a lower probability of using a toilet when compared with households of general caste Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Adivasis live in relatively inaccessible areas of the nation, and thus have lower access to public goods in comparison to others. Our results suggest that the conditional probability of a household living in rural areas being from the SC, ST or OBC categories is over 0.60, in comparison to 0.41 for people from other communities. The level of abject poverty is higher amongst these groups, which could be another potential reason for poorer sanitation coverage.

Regional variance

There is also state-level variance in the use of toilets. The likelihood for households in the north-eastern states of Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya, and the southern state of Kerala using a toilet facility is much higher than a household in Delhi (the reference state in our analysis). On the other hand, households from Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu are less likely to use toilets in comparison to a household from Delhi.

Gender influence

Results also suggest a strong case for imparting education and public awareness, especially for the female cohort. A household in which a woman has attained higher education (18 years of schooling) is 3.1 times more likely to use a toilet.

Policy recommendations

In the light of these results, there are some obvious policy implications.

First, the government should concentrate on creating a demand for toilets. Policymakers must ensure that a larger proportion of funds are directed towards educating people about hygiene and the social marketing of toilets.

Second, as the female literacy rate is linked to toilet use, it will be wise to target women and actively involve them in policymaking.

Third, there is a need for government policies that focus specifically on improving sanitation in rural areas. Such policies can be combined with rural education initiatives, along with measures to improve financial inclusion for rural households.

The religion and caste-based differentials in the adoption of toilets are more difficult to eradicate. These differentials are rooted in some ingrained beliefs and attitudes. Hindu households can be motivated to adopt latrine use by eradicating the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, often performed by the lower castes. Empowering the lower castes by encouraging them to pursue alternative jobs and possibly providing them with subsidies to construct latrine facilities can also be a step in this direction.

Nilanjan Banik is Associate Professor of Economics at Mahindra École Centrale, Hyderabad.

  • forsanity

    Isn’t there also a factor of aversion to dirty toilets which causes this phenomenon to continue. I wonder how many of the toilets built are really being maintained. Even if people start using them, they will soon become filthy and people will then rather prefer to go in the open than use the filthy toilet? So, building toilets alone is not going to solve the problem. It needs to be maintained. And it will be maintained only when people feel that the alternative of going in the open is worse. Again, to the point of the author’s contention, this requires a change in mentality which as the author points out, will come about only if people feel the need for toilets. In other words by creating demand for it. This is an excellent research paper. The question is how do we generate that demand.

  • Sandy Gulso

    In Madhya Pradesh the toilets are now being used as godown. In absence of stricter property right and way to enforce the same public goods will be misused. The same Indians behave with much sanity when they are in the US. There is laws and importantly it is strictly enforced. In India, the priority is food and shelter, and off late may be pollution. Cleanliness is much less of a concern.

  • Dunu Roy

    Statistical jugglery tells you’what’ is happening, it doesn’t tell you ‘why’ it is happening. Let’s look at this proposed equivalence: the government wants people to build toilets; the people don’t wan’t to use toilets: so what is the ‘conclusion’? – that a “change in mentality” is required of the people. Hmmm, wonder why none turns that on its head and speculates on whether a change of mentality may be needed of the government? Especially since, in spite of all the gratuitous pontification, there is yet not a single study that proves that open defecation actually causes disease! – incidents of molestation, yes; related to stunting in children, yes (but that’s got more to do with nutrition than with defecation); privacy and convenience, yes: but disease? no!

  • Ranjan Ghosh

    The problem is with attitude. And to change attitudes stiff penalty is a necessary condition, even if not sufficient. Low civic sense implies public good will be ill-treated. It is a typical problem of moral hazard. Developed countries are cleaner because they have proper institutions in place and there is stiff penalty for littering in the open. Even Indians visiting these countries adhere to these rules as there is a rule in place. In India unfortunately cleaning does not come to the top of the agenda, as that is always the ‘other’s’ problem…

  • Aloke Barnwal

    While culture did play a role in the past and still to some extent it influences use of toilets, the main difference in use of toilets is between rural and urban. The influence of culture is not so strong anymore and establishing a causal link may not be appropriate. In urban areas culture has almost nil role to play in toilet use. Analysing the rural urban differentiation in-depth would be more apt in terms of providing policy recommendations. Unavailability of tap water and related complementary infrastructure also play an important role. Finally, the focus of toilet programme is limited to household toilets only. Emphasis on public toilets in rural areas particularly near agriculture fields would make the programme more successful and build the habit to use toilets among rural communities.