No Shit! Open Defecation in India

20 Dec

On Oct. 2nd, 2019, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday, and just five years after the launch of the Swachh Bharat Campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India ODF.

Note the legend at the bottom. The same legend applies to the graphs in the gallery below.

The 2018-2019 Annual Sanitation Survey corroborates the progress:

From the 2018-19 National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey
From the 2018-19 National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey

Reducing open defecation matters because it can reduce child mortality and stunting. For instance, reducing open defecation to the levels among Muslims can increase the number of children surviving till the age of 5 by 1.7 percentage points. Coffey and Spears make the case that open defecation is the key reason why India is home to nearly a third of stunted children in the world. (See this paper as well.) (You can read my notes on Coffey and Spears’ book here. )

If the data are right, it is a commendable achievement, except that the data are not. As the National Statistical Office 2019 report, published just a month after the PM’s announcement, finds, only “71.3% of (rural) households [have] access to a toilet” (BBC). 

The situation in some states is considerably grimmer.

Like the infomercial where the deal only gets better, the news here only gets worse. For India to be ODF, people not only need to have access to the toilets but also need to use them. It is a key point that Coffey and Spears go to great lengths to explain. They report results from the SQUAT survey, which finds that of the households with latrines, 40% of the households have at least one person who defecates outside.

The government numbers stink. But don’t let the brazen number fudging take away from the actual accomplishment of building millions of toilets and a 20+ percentage point decline in open defecation in rural areas between 2009 and 2017 (based on WHO and Unicef data). (The WHO and Unicef data are corroborated by other sources including the 2018 r.i.c.e survey, which finds that “44% of rural people over two years old in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh defecate in the open. This is an improvement: 70% of rural people in the 2014 survey defecated in the open.”)