research institute for compassionate economics

The puzzle of open defecation in rural India: Evidence from a novel measure of caste attitudes in a nationally-representative survey

By Amit Thorat, Dean Spears, on November 15th, 2016

Uniquely widespread and persistent open defecation in rural India has emerged as an important policy challenge and puzzle about behavioral choice in economic development. One candidate explanation is the culture of purity and pollution that reinforces and has its origins in the caste system. Although such a cultural account is inherently difficult to quantitatively test, we provide support for this explanation by comparing open defecation rates across places in India where untouchability is more and less intensely practiced. In particular, we exploit a novel question in the 2012 India Human Development Survey that asked households whether they practice untouchability, meaning whether they enforce norms of purity and pollution in their interactions with lower castes. We find an association between local practice of untouchability and open defecation that is robust; is not explained by economic, educational, or other observable differences; and is specific to open defecation, rather than other health behavior or human capital investments more generally. We verify that practicing untouchability is not associated with general disadvantage in health knowledge or access to medical professionals. We interpret this as evidence that the culture of purity, pollution, untouchability, and caste contributes to the exceptional prevalence of open defecation in rural India.

Download Published: Working Paper       Geography: India