research institute for compassionate economics

Where India Goes in The Economist

Written by Dean Spears on August 17th, 2017

The book and the SQUAT survey are both quoted in an article in the Asia section of this week’s issue of The Economist: “Indian officials are humiliating people who defecate outdoors: Building lots of toilets does not guarantee they will be used.”

The subtitle is, of course, a point we have emphasized repeatedly here on the r.i.c.e. blog.  The main title is something we perhaps have not talked enough about.  There have been reports of not only humiliation but even some cases of violence in efforts to get people to use latrines.  In our own fieldwork we have met people who have told us that local government officials have threatened to take away their ration cards if they do not comply with the SBM.  It is no surprise that the victims are often low-ranking people in socially excluded groups.

One of the issues we raise in the book is that bad consequences are predictable when states try to get people to do something that they do not want to do — especially in large programs designed by socially distant administrators in physically distant capitals.  This suggests the question of whether the benefits are worth the costs.  Of course, open defecation has many bad consequences, too.  Conceptually, the solution is a modest focus on finding ways to encourage people to want to use latrines (by addressing the reasons they do not); in practice that is difficult.  An ambitious public goal of eliminating open defecation quickly may have some motivational benefits, but these must be weighed against the costs of eliminating the political space for learning and for navigating the subtleties of changing many people’s behavior without abusing the state’s ability to coerce.