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Solving the Great Indian Toilet Puzzle

Toilet use in India substantially lags behind toilet construction. Why is that?

This is the first article in a four-part series on toilet use in India.

On an early moonlit morning in June, in the company of the myna and the occasional woodpecker, one of us was just finishing a long walk in a village in southern Chhattisgarh. Emerging from the forest range and onto the village outskirts, he saw a strange sight. Set against an overcast sky and a gentle breeze was an irregular cluster of light to one side of the fields. Curious about these glow worms, he moved in the direction of the light. When he realised what it was, he broke into laughter and made his way back home to the village.

What Ajay saw was a not-too-uncommon sight here. A group of young men were doing defecating in the open while squatting around each other. The light was from their mobile phones, some of which were also playing songs, or streaming a film. This was one of the few areas around where the mobile signal was strong. The sight of youth deftly handling a relatively new technology (mobile phones have been in common use for only about five years here) while simultaneously engaging in a primordial practice made us think about some key assumptions in a puzzle with which we have been grappling for over a year now.

Recent policies in India such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) have increased household toilet infrastructure, backed by public campaigns and coercion. Although such interventions are well-meaning from public health and safety perspectives, longitudinal studies point to a substantial puzzle – practices around toilets are not shifting concomitantly from open defecation (OD) to toilet use (TU).

Also read | Swachh Bharat Unable To Popularise Safest Type of Toilets: Report

Extensive surveys reveal the incidence of OD to be over half in households where the government had either constructed the toilet or provided money and materials for construction. In short, TU substantially lags behind toilet construction. Policy makers throw up their hands in disbelief at the puzzle, ‘Why don’t they use the toilets built for them?’

We propose to explain this puzzle in a series of four short pieces. We will show how popular stereotypes that abound (usually among those who are far away spatially and contextually) do not really explain why TU considerably lags OD. Our examples will also eventually build up to what we find to be a realistic and compelling explanation of why and when people switch from OD to TU, and who these people are.

Returning to open defecation

Let us begin with the example of Laxmikant. A longtime resident of Mahora, one of the villages where we have been researching this puzzle, Laxmikant had worked for many years as a munim (clerk) with a forest contractor. During that time, he often travelled outside Mahora where he had the opportunity to meet a forest contractor at the latter’s home.

It was there that Laxmikant saw his first toilet and developed a desire to have one in his home too. Emulating the contractor, he managed to build a twin-seat toilet with his own money and began using it. Thus, long before the SBA came to his village, Laxmikant was an enthusiastic toilet user, as were his wife, sons and their families.

Also read | Behind Mumbai’s Self-Declared ODF Status, Overused, Inadequate and Crumbling Toilets

Laxmikant even sought to persuade others in the village to use toilets. Often, he was heard singing praises of the advantages of TU since it provided a suvidha (convenience), especially to avoid snakes when ‘going out,’ and the comfort to go out any time even at night.

After SBA came to his village, he became a volunteer of the nigrani samiti (surveillance committee) set up by the panchayat to surveil villagers, to proscribe OD and to coerce people into using toilets. Patrolling well-known paths used by villagers to go for OD, volunteers would blow a whistle whenever they saw someone ‘going out’ during the early morning hours (4-7 am). In our time here, although some villagers were ‘caught’, there was no case of anyone paying a fine.

However, Laxmikant slowly lost his enthusiasm for the toilet and eventually reverted to OD. This switch away from TU to OD coincided with the end of the nigrani samiti in Mahora, about a year after its inception. Nowadays, one can frequently spot him going on his cycle with his lota (toilet mug).

In our interviews he admits, a little shamefacedly, to going back to OD largely because he felt that he would not be fined now and since he felt that his toilet did not suit him anymore. Like many others who spoke to us, he too mentioned in passing that “his stomach was not well-cleaned (pet saaf nahin hota hai)” by TU. Nonetheless, Laxmikant spoke about how having a toilet proved to be useful when his son had a case of diarrhoea and was in the hospital.

Laxmikant’s trajectory dispels a major stereotype about ordinary villagers – that they are reluctant to use new technology. Like the youth with cell phones, and like many other villagers in Mahora who own television sets and motorcycles, increasingly visit biomedical hospitals and are avid agricultural technology fans, he too enthusiastically learnt a new technology that impacted his way of life. He even rationalised his own behaviour to others. The fact that he initially built the toilet with his own money speaks to the enthusiasm with which he adopted TU.

Explaining his behaviour

Why did Laxmikant initially enthusiastically accept the toilet and then reject it?

His initial acceptance may have been due to viewing the toilet as a sign of ‘prestige’ and status (gaurav) combined with the fact that it seemed to promise convenience. However, the fact that he denied the same and flipped once he left the nigrani samiti compels us to view prestige and convenience as only temporary rationalisations for him.

Like many other villagers with whom we spoke, Laxmikant too admitted that the toilet was of ‘low quality’ (bad materials which showed in the degree of disrepair) and that the actual TU experience was not measuring up to his expectations (including feeling claustrophobic or ghutan). Interestingly, it is not for lack of water, since there is a tubewell right in front of his house.

Also read | Rajasthan’s Phulera May Be Declared ODF, But an Acute Water Crisis Threatens Swachh Bharat Goals

Laxmikant – the TU recidivist, reverting to the default OD social practice, poses an interesting challenge to easy explanations about why villagers do not instantly use toilets built for them.

Like the youth on glow worm mobile phones, clearly Laxmikant was open to new things and exposed to outside influences. Neither was he clinging on to tradition nor did ideology propel him to strongly justify or reject OD. He was pragmatic, but that pragmatism did not dictate a strong stance regarding OD or TU.

Clearly, his behaviour could be influenced by intervention, as his involvement in the nigrani samiti reveals. And somehow, all of this combined to produce an ambiguity regarding his stance on TU.

Our next story will explore another aspect of this complex and ambiguous reality – how toilets are embedded (or not) in everyday life rhythms.

Balmurli Natrajan is a professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey, USA, and visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; Suraj Jacob is at Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur, and visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; and T.G. Ajay is an independent researcher and director, Drksakshi, Chhattisgarh.

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