Toilet Use: Coercion Is a Risky Strategy That Stymies Social Learning

Prestige, combined with convenience, can help set in toilet use as a durable practice, but only if untainted by coercion.

This is the final article in a four-part series on toilet use in India. Read the first here, second here and the third here.

Thus far, we have shown with the help of seven individuals (Laxmikant, Kanvalram, Madhuri, Seeradhwaj, Giriraj & Rambai and Netram) that switching from a default open defecation (OD) to toilet use (TU) is a complex phenomenon. It is a puzzle as to why people switch or do not from OD to TU. It is now time to advance our explanation for this puzzle.

Our research in a set of villages in Chhattisgarh has suggested three major misconceived stereotypes that we wish to dispense with. These are:

Stereotype 1: Villagers are foolish or irrational and have a hard time adjusting to new technology (i.e., old habits die hard because people are too attached to them)

Instead we see that people are pragmatic. They have changed over time and are open to technologies that ‘make sense’ to their own lives (relevance).

Stereotype 2: The best way to bring about large-scale change from OD to TU is coercion

Instead, there is evidence that coercion does not really produce durable habits, practices that individuals engage in without any externally visible force. At least in the short-term, we have seen examples of resentment of such coercion, clear attempts to evade surveillance and outright defiance of the ideological imposition of the state.

Our commitment to a democratic society also reminds us that it would be dangerous to speculate about the potential long-term advantage of paternalistic state coercion, when it is clear that the short term produces resistance that is compelling in its own logic.

Also Read: Toilet Use in India: Coercion for Some, Convenience for Others

Stereotype 3: Toilets are self-evidently ‘better’ for all people in all contexts

Many in the urban middle and upper classes tend to use a trope in which the rural and urban poor appear as ‘primitive fools’. Such a stereotype is a self-congratulatory mechanism for those who hold it. It is not based on reality.

More positively, we see that there are many ways in which ‘context’ determines what is good or better. Context in turn depends upon the particular ‘variation’ that distinguishes one context from another. This variation could be locale (urban or rural), age, gender, ability, social group (caste, religious identity), exposure to toilets, and personal disposition (which is a complex of desires, beliefs, and opportunities shaped by culture).

Factors: Coercion, convenience, prestige

Turning now to our explanation, we have seen in our examples three major factors that shape individual behavior around the toilet. These are coercion (dabaav), convenience (suvidha) and prestige (gaurav).

Coercion is state-driven but implemented through social means (nigrani samiti made of volunteers, complaint box, threats). Convenience includes considerations about travel distance for OD vs proximity of toilet, space needed for bodily functions, the feeling of ‘clean stomach’ (‘pet saaf hona’), availability of water, quality of toilet construction, anxieties of septic tank overflow and safety in inclement weather. Prestige invokes notions of self (identity), status (in relation to other people in the vicinity) and symbolic identifications with any technology.

But identification of factors by itself is not enough to produce an explanation. To extend an analogy used by Paul Pierson, it is like knowing the ingredients but not the recipe for a dish. What is needed additionally is to see how factors combine in an overall process to produce an outcome (continuing with OD, switching to TU, or some combination). To take ‘context’ seriously, factors have to be interwoven through processes.

Processes: Problem situation, social learning

From our study, we have identified two major processes – construction of problem situation and social learning.

Some actions of an individual are arguably responses to what s/he perceives as ‘problems’. Thus, when faced with the problem of crossing a street with traffic, individuals respond in a variety of ways that mitigate that problem.

For villagers who traditionally do OD, we can conceive of a time when it was a default practice, not a ‘problem’ that needed intentional action as response. The possibility of toilets (appearing through government schemes or personal travels) potentially constructs a ‘problem situation’. However, individuals interpret this situation pragmatically for its relevance.

Thus, whereas Madhuri viewed coercion positively due to her own official position in the panchayat, Kanval Ram viewed coercion in a more ambiguous manner (balancing the fact of his wife’s official position, his own predilection towards prestige goods, and his ability to see how OD made sense to daily rhythms in his situation).

In contrast to both of them, Seeradhwaj articulated an openly defiant ideological view of the toilet as an illegitimate imposition on his life in which doing OD made great sense, perhaps due to the inconvenience of a small toilet space and the existence of large open tracts of land around the village.

The inconvenience of a small toilet space deters people from using them. Representative image.

Each of them constructed their view of the ‘problem situation’: should there be a response to the appearance of a toilet? Should state coercion be given in to? Should panchayat office pressures change one’s habits? And, each came up with an individual and separate response.

In a rather different way, Giriraj, Rambai and Netram showed how long-term shaping of desires (what is ‘appropriate’) and beliefs (about bodily modesty for example) shape how they interpret the problem situation in their lives.

Here, opportunity, desires and beliefs take precedence. For them, coercion becomes irrelevant since they have a desire for the toilets (but simultaneously they also do not mind coercion, viewing it perhaps as necessary for others like Kanval Ram or Seeradhwaj).

Convenience in turn becomes closely associated with their own desires and beliefs such that OD – which is the default social practice that has been historically part of their social lives – becomes distasteful, even disgusting. Netram also has clear notions of how toilet is a prestige good to be aspired to.

Finally, each of them ‘saw’ opportunities to act upon their desires and beliefs.

Also Read: Building (Only) Toilets Isn’t Always the Answer to Ending Open Defecation

The question we are left with then is, what produces different constructions of problem situations and their responses within small spaces such as a village? It is here that we introduce the second major process that makes the context for our puzzle – social learning.

The desires, beliefs, motivations and actions of individuals are shaped by others in their context (and even outside their context but brought into it through travel, visitors, media and so on). This implies that humans are fundamentally social animals, i.e., we take account of the presence of others in our context and act accordingly in some manner.

The concept of social learning alerts us to the fact that each individual constantly learns and transmits that learning to others, who in turn interpret what they see, hear and feel and respond in different ways. An individual may imitate someone in her context, or may not be convinced of the logic or the relevance of the other person’s action.

This itself is not a decision taken by an isolated individual, but rather usually within an interactional space (young men hanging out in the evenings, women going together to the market, neighbours casually chatting with each other, panchayat gatherings that shape public opinion, a visitor to the village who attracts attention).

Thus both Vishnu Ram and Giriraj had the opportunity to travel outside the village, where they saw toilets in people’s homes. This experience created a long-term desire in both of them upon which they acted – later, when they had the opportunity, especially in Giriraj’s case – to build their own toilets. It also helped Giriraj and his wife Rambai to develop deeper beliefs about the toilet.

Similarly, Netram’s exposure at an early age to the toilet combined with his predispositions to feelings of modesty about clothing his body, to produce the toilet as a durable choice. Such acts of adoption of the toilet also created conditions for others to see what a toilet does to everyday lives in the village.

In our study, we found significant variation of TU between social groups (some with very high proportion of members doing TU, others with very low proportion). These are examples of how cultural transmission of the new practice of using the toilet proceeds. Our fieldwork reveals two possible mechanisms – that people imitate the actions of a person with high status, and they imitate an action that they feel will bring them similar positive results.

The desires, beliefs, motivations and actions of individuals are shaped by others in their context. Credit: Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Factors, processes, explanation

So, did Kanval Ram’s TU aid its spread within his community of Kamars? Or, did Madhuri’s TU successfully convince villagers in her panchayat to increase their TU? Similarly, did Giriraj/Rambai or Netram’s enthusiastic embrace of TU shape the adoption of the toilet among peers and neighbours? Or, did Seeradhwaj’s articulate invective against the state’s imposition of the toilet have greater effect?

Such questions help us look at the context of TU and OD in sharper ways. Does the appearance of being coerced into TU (Kanval Ram and Madhuri) inhibit its spread as a cultural trait? Does the fact that Giriraj has a disability (and hence has a clear reason to adopt TU) and that Netram is a maverick in the village, prevent others from overtly imbibing their enthusiasm for the toilet?

From our research thus far, we can argue the following with some confidence:

Besides being undemocratic and ethically problematic, coercion is a high risk strategy since it could easily make toilets appear illegitimate, and stymie social learning through adopting actions that appear to give positive results to others (part of convenience).

The current quality of the toilets makes the evaluation of convenience ambiguous and not clearly positive. Many people mentioned to us that their “stomachs did not feel clean” (“pet theek saaf nahi hua”) after doing TU for some time.

Our continuing research is beginning to throw more light on this aspect in terms of how bodily comforts are cognized and articulated in cultural terms. Combined with other issues such as small space discomforts, the fact of needing to wait in case some other family member is using it, the special case of daughters-in-law in households, and the facts that the sink pits show leakage and sewage plumbing is mostly non-existent, together compromise the convenience possibility substantially.

Interestingly, our fieldwork is in villages that are mostly free from the public health risks usually associated with OD. The reason for this is that few people do OD in proximity to residential areas. They either use the toilet or go some distance in the open fields or forest areas.

Also Read: In Several UP Villages, Toilets Exist Only on Paper

Ironically, the hastily and poorly constructed toilets of the last few years, with their low quality septic tanks and pipes, may end up contaminating the ground in ways that negatively impact public health.

The prestige factor is a clear possibility for durable adoption. Individuals could learn to perceive the toilet as a prestige good due to someone of high status using it in their vicinity (not Amitabh Bachhan or Vidya Balan, who do not easily translate into aspirational motivations).

Or they could perceive the obvious benefits for toilet users in their everyday lives (such as clear saving of time or better general health attributable to toilets or ease of performing bodily functions). Or they may be subject to peer pressure to conform (usually in a tightly knit social group where cultural traits are identified as part of group identity).

Toilet use thus is a phenomenon that is an outcome of two processes (construction of a problem situation and social learning) acting upon three factors (coercion, convenience, prestige). Variations are bound to occur even in small spaces since humans are neither simply blind followers of others nor simply lone rangers blasting independent trails. They are pragmatic learners who act socially within groups and communities to respond to ‘problem situations’ and take decisions about whether to adopt a new technology when it makes sense to them.

In turn when such a technology starts making sense to more people, a threshold point is reached in the context when more people imitate each other to produce a durable practice. When (and if) prestige is combined with convenience and clearly not tainted by coercion, TU as a durable practice could be expected to set in.

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.