All posts by Sangita Vyas

An article on rural outdoor air pollution in The Caravan!

Until now, concern and action regarding outdoor air pollution in India have focused on Delhi and other large urban centers. However, 30 percent of Indians live in rural Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which satellite images show falling under a cloud of smoke every winter. The article reports on what Nikhil and I experienced when we spent a week in Reusa block, Uttar Pradesh, last January.

Reusa has no air quality monitors. In fact, there are no government air quality monitors in rural India at all. But the portable air quality monitor that Nikhil and I took with us showed levels of air pollution that rivaled those of Delhi and Lucknow. Monitoring outdoor air quality in rural areas is essential for better understanding the problem, and bringing more attention to it’s scale.

Read the full article here.

Work with r.i.c.e. and 3ie on a project to learn about latrine use measurement!

We are delighted to announce that we are seeking applications for a team to carry out a new project — in partnership with 3ie and the WASH team at the Gates Foundation — that can help us learn about how to measure latrine use in rural India!

This project will be part of the Promoting Latrine Use in Rural India Thematic Window, also in collaboration with 3ie and the Gates Foundation. The window is funding several research teams to implement and evaluate behavior change interventions that aim to promote latrine use in rural India.

The projects under this window present a unique opportunity to also learn about how to measure latrine use.  The project for which we are seeking applicants now is about testing different data collection tools across different settings in rural India to figure out which ones measure latrine use most accurately.

The Swachh Bharat Mission aims to eliminate open defecation. However, how to measure open defecation accurately is still an open question. We hope this study on measurement will provide some insight.

See more at:

How to continue the pit emptying momentum

I’m pasting below a list of practical action ideas that Robert Chambers has proposed after the pit emptying demonstration in Warangal. These are activities that governments and organizations can take up alike, to break down taboos around pit emptying related to caste and untouchability. These are some great ideas, and if they are actually taken up by the government and others, it could be a real turning point for the SBM.


  • Spread pit-emptying, now that the example has been set. Approach and send out a short note in  many copies with photos to key influentials especially the following encouraging them to do likewise: spiritual leaders, political leaders, district collectors.
  • Encourage all to carry around and display the manure they have dug up, showing how it is odourless, dry, crumbly and non-polluting, passing it around in meetings – (we did this in Raipur with 30 SHG members who had no qualms) – the CEO, Nileshkumar Kshirsagar had dug some out the same morning.
  • Make it a status and prestige thing – have you dug out a pit? Haven’t you dug a pit out yet?  So that it becomes a social norm within Government, NGOs, journalists and so on, to do this and to have done it.
  • Invite the Prime Minister to take a lead and be ahead of the game both nationally and internationally.   Inform him, and show him the manure. He would have a huge impact and boost the SBMG, total usage,  sustainability and the long-term  legacy of the SBMG.
  • Review,  revise and test IEC materials for twin pits.  Take septic tanks on frontally comparing them in cost, sustainability, purity (with twin pits you never have to empty that nasty stuff etc ), turning a liability into an asset, an investment every time you go to the loo, it pays to do it in the toilet.
  • Collect videoed, written and other testimonies from early twin pit adopters who in every local dialect can express their satisfaction, and demonstrate the benefits they have gained from their twin pits – men, women, children, Natural Leaders…   If possible with estimates of the value of a full mature twin pit. Consider including anyone who regrets having replaced their twin pit with a septic tank (it may be very common we have found it in UP and Chhattisgarh. Get all this on TV, shown in schools,  in newspapers etc etc.  Include any schools and anganwadis that have twin pits.
  • Knowledge and monitoring of substructures.  Substructures hide a lot of irreversible bad practices. Once covered over and being used a pit does not invite inspection.  As part of every campaign have materials to enable sarpanches, nigrani samitis, and ordinary householders to know what should be done by a mason, and encouraging them to supervise and monitor construction closely. Include information and advice on how to resist masons who argue for septic tanks – they make more money.  Stress that superstructure is a matter for household discretion and choice, and they can construct for themselves if they wish.
  • Encourage and allow space for self-help and collective action and behaviour change. To the extent possible follow the examples from HP, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and several other States in which at scale communities have become ODF without payment of the incentive.  Do not undermine or slow these more durable collective solutions with compulsory introduction of Direct Beneficiary Transfer.
  • Slogans.  Encourage national and state-wide competitions for slogans.  We did one on the bus returning to Hyderabad, which Sujoy Mazumdar has collated. But these are our ideas.  What about local people’s? These should always fit local context, use local language.  Once chosen place them everywhere in every medium….
  • Stunting and MHM as triggers, potentially deep and lasting?  Add fitting research-based text about link with OD and lack of hygiene,  performance in school, lower earnings later for stunted children, damaged immune systems … Slogans again here   Who is stunting your child today?  Are your neighbours stunting you child today (too extreme?). Whose child are you or is your family stunting today?  ,,,etc.  Have posters in all villages….How do you do it with MHM and men?
  • Brainstorming.  Invite others to contribute ideas to an open-ended brainstorming session about how to generate sustainable behaviour change drawing on Val Curtis’ and others’ experience for practical actions that can be taken immediately .  Then hold a second meeting with people who can commit to getting on with actions.

Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation Secretary empties a latrine pit!

The Times of India reported yesterday that the Secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Param Iyer, emptied a latrine pit in Warangal district yesterday. Read why r.i.c.e. believes this is an important step forward in our op-ed in The Hindu.

It’s now well known that the history and continuing practice of untouchability play an important role in explaining open defecation in India. Several studies have found that many rural Indians associate emptying a latrine pit by hand with manual scavenging, work that Dalits have traditionally been compelled to do. Thankfully, the exploitation and exclusion of Dalits is being challenged in India, and many have abandoned the degrading work associated with their oppression. In light of this situation, though, rural Indians do not want to use the kinds of latrines that require periodic manual pit emptying, like those promoted by the Indian government.

It is therefore laudable that Secretary Iyer, the highest-ranking bureaucrat working on sanitation, set an example for representatives of each state by emptying a latrine pit himself.

But many rural Indians probably do not know who Secretary Iyer is and may not come across the articles covering this event, so it will be essential for others to pass on the message. I only hope that this is the beginning of many such demonstrations across the country. If the image of high-ranking people emptying pits becomes as ubiquitous as the images of high-ranking officials wielding brooms, this will be a new era in sanitation policy indeed.


r.i.c.e. research changes beliefs

Influencing the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of others through research is tough, and often unsuccessful. But this reader’s comment on Diane’s recent article in The Hindu on women eating last inspires us to keep on trying.

Two r.i.c.e. articles in this week’s EPW!

Our article on pollution, latrine pits, and untouchability has been published in this week’s EPW! This article discusses the findings of the Switching Study, which we started several years ago. So it’s great to finally see this in print!

India has far higher open defecation rates than other developing regions where people are poorer, literacy rates are lower, and water is relatively more scarce. In practice, government programmes in rural India have paid little attention in understanding why so many rural Indians defecate in the open rather than use affordable pit latrines. Drawing on new data, the article finds that widespread open defecation in rural India is on account of beliefs, values, and norms about purity, pollution, caste, and untouchability that cause people to reject affordable latrines. Future rural sanitation programmes must address villagers’ ideas about pollution, pit-emptying, and untouchability, and should do so in ways that accelerate progress towards social equality for Dalits rather than delay it.

Access the article from EPW’s website here, or download it from our research page.

And congratulations to Avinash, one of our board members, and his colleagues, who also have an article published in this week’s EPW on policy options for making pulses more affordable! See his article here.


Four-part series on SARI in The Hindu!

The Hindu just ran a four-part series covering the Social Attitudes Research for India (SARI) Survey. SARI uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialing, within-household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults 18-65 years old. So far, we’ve interviewed 1,270 adults in Delhi and 1,470 adults in Uttar Pradesh. Through this study, we are trying to learn about people’s perceptions and attitudes towards socially excluded groups, and experiences of discrimination faced by Dalits and Muslims.

In the first op-ed, Diane and Amit discuss perceptions of inter-caste marriage. About 40% of respondents in Delhi and more than 60% in rural Uttar Pradesh said that there should be laws to stop marriages between upper castes and lower castes.

In the second, they discuss how common it is for people to report that their household practices untouchability. Among non-Dalit Hindus in Delhi, a third said that someone in their household practices untouchability. In Uttar Pradesh, half of adults said that someone practices it.

In the third op-ed, Amit discusses the opposition of caste-based reservations, and the reasons people give for their opposition.

In the final op-ed, Diane talks about how common it is for women to eat last. One in three adults in Delhi, and six in ten adults in U.P. said they lived in households where men eat first. Since infants get all of their nutrition in early life from their mothers, moms eating last has important implications for child health.

first year of SBM over, only four left to eliminate open defecation

Today is Gandhi Jayanti, which marks the first anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission. r.i.c.e. marked the occasion a few days ago by hosting a Conference on Purity, Untouchability, and Open Defecation: Starting a Conversation for a Swachh Bharat.

At the conference, researchers and policy makers alike agreed that in order to have a chance at eliminating open defecation in India, the SBM must address how beliefs in purity and pollution and the continuing practice of untouchability hinder the use of simple, inexpensive latrines that save infant lives all over the rest of the developing world.

Today, the media agreed too. An editorial in the Indian Express says:

“For it to succeed, Swachh Bharat will also have to account for the culture of purity and pollution rural sanitation is embedded in, and more carefully negotiate issues of caste on the ground. A recent study in the BMC Public Health found that “strongly ingrained beliefs around impurity and pollution and the required rituals for purification and cleansing post-defecation in Indian society may play a big part in the choice to continue defecating in the open”. Modi’s use of his bully pulpit has focused much-needed attention on a dirty reality of Indian society, but a cleansing will take more.”

Anumeha Yadav, in her article in Scroll, also talks about the problems faced when beliefs in purity and pollution are not tackled. She visited an ODF village in Rajasthan in which a number of households were forced to build latrines and took out large loans in order to build latrines with massive pits. Latrines with smaller pits that nevertheless safely confine feces in the ground could be built for much less. She says in her article:

“Till 15 years ago, Dausod had a system of dry latrines which were cleaned manually by dalit communities. With the arrival of flush toilet, the practice ended. But because of the lingering association of latrine cleaning with manual scavenging, wealthier families which constructed toilets first built latrines with large single pits so they can put off emptying them for as long as possible.”

An article in Hindustan Times echoes the same issues:

“In this hurry to achieve the construction targets, what we are losing sight of is the fact that building toilets is just one part of the challenge. The other objectives of SBM — eradicating manual scavenging, implementing effective scientific municipal waste management, effecting behavioural change among the people, generating awareness on the link that exists between sanitation and health and augmenting the capacity of urban local bodies — are equally important and have to be put in place if India is to achieve the 2019 target. This is because without water supply and safe disposal of faecal matter, toilets would become non-functional.”

You can download the presentations from the conference here.




Merry Good Governance Day and happy Christmas!

For those of you haven’t been paying attention to the uproar in India over whether school kids get Christmas off this year, we have one more thing to rejoice today: India’s “commitment towards providing transparent, effective and accountable governance to the people of this country.”

Since today is a day to celebrate governance, I thought I would share a relevant story with you from my recent trip to Sitapur. I spent much of the trip in villages talking to people about pit cleaning, and in the process Nikhil and I ran into a household that uses a dry latrine. Now, it’s no secret that manual scavenging still exists in India. Despite the passage of The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act in 1993, the 2011 Census recorded almost 8 lakh dry latrines that are cleaned out by people. After over 20 years since the prohibition of manual scavenging, this degrading and inhumane practice still persists.

What was surprising about this particular family was that the head of the household is an anganwadi worker. So, what’s new? Government employees break the law all the time. But, she thought that we were also from the government, and were there to give away latrines. Despite this belief, she had no qualms about telling us she uses a dry latrine and even allowing us to look at it. Not only does her behaviour suggest that use of dry latrines is socially acceptable, it also suggests that she either has no knowledge of the Act or at least no fear of its enforcement.


Having a place to defecate in the home is pretty important for this anganwadi’s family. Her son had polio when he was a child and now can hardly walk. He is now 21 and gets around on a three-wheeled cycle which he pedals with his arms. He uses the dry latrine because it isn’t easily able to go in the open by himself and it would be difficult for anyone else in the household to pick him up to take him out. The anganwadi worker uses it too because she believes it is inappropriate for women to go in the open. Every few days, a sweeper comes to pick up the poop and throws it out somewhere, and in return he or she gets Rs. 60 per month.

We tried talking with this household about other inexpensive latrine options. They weren’t excited about any of them. It seemed that as long as manual scavengers were available in the village and would do this work, they would keep using the dry latrine, regardless of any law against it.

How can we expect laws to be enforced and social norms to change when the government isn’t even enforcing good behaviour in its own ranks, among the employees who are closest to the ground? So, as we celebrate the path to good governance today, we should keep in mind just how long the road is.

SQUAT dataset now available!

squat logo_final_2

The full dataset from the SQUAT Survey is now available here! You will find the questionnaires and documentation files, also accessible at the same link as above, helpful if you decide to use the data.

We invite you all to play around with the data and do interesting analyses! Get in touch if you have questions, feedback, or things to share.

r.i.c.e. at UNC

We just concluded a great week at the Water and Health Conference at UNC! Between the 4 of us attending, we had 6 verbal presentations and 6 poster presentations over the course of the week. We were so thrilled to be able to share so much of our work and to get such great feedback.

The highlight of our week was Tuesday’s side session in which we presented research from the SQUAT Survey and the Switching Study, and heard Tom Clasen’s thoughts on latrine use in India. The session concluded with a panel discussion between Robert Chambers, Oliver Cumming, Barbara Evans, and Eddy Perez, moderated by Jan Willem Rosenboom.

Stay tuned for our presentations, which we’ll put up very shortly.


r.i.c.e. standing by UNC's iconic Old Well. A fitting conclusion to the Water and Health Conference.

How many missing toilets will there be after the first 100 days?

Now, I don’t really like to talk too much about toilets because it takes away from the conversation on latrine use, but Aashish and I just did some math on missing toilets, and the statistics are pretty stark.

For the past 15 years, the Total Sanitation Campaign, and then the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), has been building latrines across rural India, but despite these efforts, there has been little reduction in open defecation. In fact, from 2001 to 2011, latrine coverage in rural India increased by about 1 percentage point each year. A total of 5.2 crore rural households, or 31 percent of rural families, had toilets by 2011 in total. The website for the NBA, however, states that it built 8.7 crore toilets between 2001 and 2011

The government’s claims are even more startling when you consider that the Census showed that only about 80 lakh new toilets were built in rural areas over the same period. Let’s make the incorrect assumption that the government was responsible for all of these new toilets. For every toilet that was actually constructed, the government spent money to build 10!

So how many more missing toilets will there be on 31st August, the end of the PMs first 100 days, and the deadline for the construction of 5.2 million toilets? Wouldn’t it be a much better use of funds to instead focus on promoting latrine use, instead of building phantom toilets?

Sanitation is a core message in PMs Independence Day speech!

The Prime Minister yesterday gave his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort, and brought up sanitation as an important issue for the next 4 years! He says,

I, therefore, have to launch a “Clean India” campaign from 2nd October this year and carry it forward in 4 years. I want to make a beginning today itself and that is – all schools in the country should have toilets with separate toilets for girls. Only then our daughters will not be compelled to leave schools midway. Our parliamentarians utilising MPLAD fund are there. I appeal to them to spend it for constructing toilets in schools for a year. The government should utilise its budget on providing toilets. I call upon the corporate sector also to give priority to the provision of toilets in schools with your expenditure under Corporate Social Responsibility. This target should be finished within one year with the help of state governments and on the next 15th August, we should be in a firm position to announce that there is no school in India without separate toilets for boys and girls.

While we are very happy to know that Modi continues to prioritize improving sanitation, any successful campaign to eliminate open defecation in India will need to focus on latrine use, not just building latrines. We hope that the designers of the “Clean India” campaign will keep this in mind.

Read the whole speech here.

Lots of educated men who have toilets still defecate in the open

We often think that education in general, and educating people on how bacteria spread, will get people to use their latrines. In the graph above, we are able to see latrine use by sex and level of education for people who live in households that have a latrine. The data are from the SQUAT Survey of sanitation attitudes and behaviors in the rural parts of 5 north Indian states. What the graph shows is that even among highly educated individuals who have a latrine, a sizeable proportion still defecate in the open.

Of course, more educated people are more likely to use the latrines they have than less educated people, and women are more likely to use their latrines than men at every level of education. But, what is striking is that close to 20% of men who have studied up to the 12th class still defecate in the open even though they have a latrine at home. A larger fraction of men in our sample who are 12th class graduates in households that own latrines defecate in the open than do all people in Ghana, Senegal, and Zambia.

Defecating in the open is very much a part of Indian culture, and is much harder to change than just through education. Just relying on teachers to teach germ-theory in schools may not do the trick.

Bloomberg News also finds unused government latrines

Bloomberg News came out with a story yesterday on how government latrines are often not used in rural north India because people are often disgusted by them. The journalist quotes Yamini Aiyar, of Accountability Initiative, saying:

Targets for construction of toilets are somewhat irrelevant to resolving the sanitation problem. Building toilets does not mean that people will use them and there seems to be a host of cultural, social and caste-based reasons for that. People need to be taught the value of sanitation.

He also cites some research from the SQUAT Study! Check the full story out here!

What do the SQUAT data say about latrine usage and religion?


To continue the trajectory of chart month, I’d like to share some of the data that we collected in the SQUAT Survey on latrine ownership and usage among different religious groups. The SQUAT Survey teams randomly selected and interviewed around 3,200 rural households in over 300 villages in Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. For a more detailed explanation of the sampling strategy, see our SQUAT policy brief.

Among SQUAT survey respondents, 52% of Muslim households have latrines, while a smaller 43% of Hindu households do. Moreover, the graph above shows that for every level of wealth, measured using a simple sum of a series of assets, Muslim households are more likely to have a latrine than Hindu households are. These results are similar to what one would see using larger datasets like India’s NFHS and the IHDS.

Now of course, one of the main contributions of the SQUAT survey is that it allows us to look at usage, not just ownership. The following graphs look at usage among people who have latrines and are chock full of interesting stuff. First, they show that for men and women of all ages, Muslims use the latrines they have more often than Hindus do. However, this difference is more prevalent among women than men, suggesting that purdah among Muslim women may be an important factor here.

The other interesting thing about these graphs is how usage changes among different age groups. Now remember, this data is cross-sectional, so it doesn’t show how usage changes over time for individuals, but how usage is different right now among different age groups. Young children often defecate in the open. As they get older, both women and men tend to use their latrines more, although women of childbearing age are more likely to use than men of the same age. Older people are more likely to defecate in the open, most likely because it is their habit. It’s what they have been doing since they were children. Finally, there is an uptick in usage among the very old, probably because ailing health makes it difficult for them to walk out to the fields.

Hindu Muslim use combined

The story that these graphs tell is that in the rural areas we visited in north India, just as in larger nationally representative datasets, Muslims are more likely to own latrines than Hindus. Moreover, among those households who have latrines, Muslims are also more likely to use it. Given the consistency between different datasets, both nationally representative and focused on rural areas where the sanitation problem is concentrated, and the consistency between ownership and usage, I’m pretty convinced that this story is real.

V.S. Naipaul understood the culture of open defecation way back in 1964!

I recently picked up V.S. Naipaul’s book An Area of Darkness, a chronicle of his first trip to India published in 1964. Although some view the book as overly pessimistic and scathing, his portrayal of India’s culture of open defecation is uncannily accurate.

Shankaracharya Hill, overlooking the Dal Lake, is one of the beauty spots of Srinagar. It has to be climbed with care, for large areas of its lower slopes are used as latrines by Indian tourists. If you surprise a group of three women, companionably defecating, they will giggle: the shame is yours, for exposing yourself to such a scene.

In Madras the bus station near the High Court is one of the more popular latrines. The traveller arrives; to pass the time he raises his dhoti, defecates in the gutter. The bus arrives; he boards it; the woman sweeper cleans up after him.

In Goa, you might think of taking an early morning walk along the balustrade avenue that runs beside the Mandovi River. Six feet below, on the water’s edge, and as far as you can see, there is a line, like a wavering tidewrack, of squatters. For the people of Goa, as for those of Imperial Rome, defecating is a social activity; they squat close to one another; they chatter. When they are done they advance, trousers still down, backsides bare, into the water to wash themselves.

Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.

A handsome young Muslim boy, a student at a laughable institute of education in an Uttar Pradesh weaving town, elegantly dressed in the style of Mr. Nehru, even down to the buttonhole, had another explanation. Indians were a poetic people, he said. He himself always sought the open because he was a poet, a lover of Nature, which was the matter of his Urdu verses; and nothing was as poetic as squatting on a river bank at dawn.

He eloquently describes in these vignettes what we have found 50 years later in the SQUAT and Switching Studies: that defecating in the open is the social norm. It is considered to be a part of the wholesome, rural life, in which one takes a walk outside in nature, socializes with friends, and avoids polluting oneself and one’s home.

A new blog on Centre for Global Development: “Honey, West Bengal Shrunk the Kids”

Clever title aside, Victoria Fan and Rifaiyat Mahbub of the Centre for Global Development discuss the overlaps between an older paper by Shroff et al and a more recent one by Arabinda Ghosh and r.i.c.e researchers, both explaining the differences in health outcomes between West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Fan and Mahbub end with:

And yet both our study and this newer study seem to be deficient and complement each other. Our study did not account for the nutritional status of women or the problem of open defecation in trying to understand differences in health indicators across West Bengal and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the recent study stopped short of disentangling oral rehydration therapy and immunization.

More research that increases the scope of these two studies and examines the combination of the factors explored in two works discussed needs to be undertaken. Drawing on these natural experiments is also a fruitful area for research – the Two Bengals, Two Punjabs, two Germanys, two Koreas, two Chinas, etc. Any takers, public health students?

We are all for more research on this topic, and we are definitely all for taking advantage of more natural experiments!

Even America’s National Public Radio says a sanitation social movement may be in order

Julie McCarthy of National Public Radio covers the recent incident of sexual and caste violence in Badaun and open defecation. She rightly highlights the importance of shifting social norms in order to eliminate open defecation, and even uses some statistics from the SQUAT survey!

The Gates Foundation’s Brian Arbogast says even affordable innovations won’t alone solve India’s sanitation problems. He says India needs to shift the mindset that open defecation is ‘natural and normal’ to ‘it is not healthy.’

‘You teach them that their children and their families are suffering a lot of sickness because of basically fecal matter being transmitted by flies or other ways to the food they eat,’ Arbogast says. ‘And once people really realize that, that can really be a triggering event for a community.’

Diane Coffey, an economist and Ph.D. candidate with Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School says simply providing latrines is no guarantee that people will actually use them. She studied five northern Indian states and found that 19 percent of women with access to a latrine still preferred to defecate in the open.

‘They’re used to it, for one,’ Coffey says. And she says the research is clear that ‘building toilets without addressing common norms, attitudes and beliefs around latrine use is unlikely to reduce open defecation in rural India.’

And she’s very right about Indians’ expectations of Modi. He better make good on his recent election campaign promise: “toilets first, temples later.”

Check out her article and radio segment here.