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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.