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Asking dirty questions in Bihar

Blog Post3 min read

For the second morning running, I am pleased to report, Aashish’s and my team here in Darbhanga, Bihar has beat Sangita, Nikhil, and Diane’s team in Rewari, Haryana in getting out the door and surveying in the morning. To be fair, I must confess that yesterday we won only by a nose: Diane made the mistake of calling to taunt us that they were all in the jeep and ready to go, but hadn’t yet started. As her luck would have it, we, too, were all in the jeep. I shouted to turn on the car, the final condition for victory by the rules of our contest. I wish all the best to the other team for tomorrow morning – really, you would think they would have a good chance, as we have the handicap of an extra surveyor. And, you know, Bihar.

In other important business, we have a great set of surveyors who are getting a good job done. We’re in the first districts of a project that will take us to 8 states in Hindi-speaking north India over the next few months. It is a hard survey: we’re not merely trying to learn what people have or what they do. We’re trying to learn what they think, want, and believe.

What people really think is hard to learn about for all of the ordinary reasons that it is hard to learn about in everyday life. It is sometimes, for example, impossible to get anyone in my family to say where they want to go for dinner, for fear of imposing their preferences on the rest of us. Sometimes, we have the opposite problem. Or, consider a friend with a new haircut – are you really going to declare that you don’t like it? What if it is not a friend, but a visitor, a special guest, who has come a long way to learn about you and what you think? Chances are you’re going to try to be nice, or useful, or friendly, or maybe just say whatever you think is going to make you look good.

So, our basic strategy is to hide the fact that we’re interested in sanitation and latrines for the first half of the survey. We don’t lie. We simply ask about all sorts of bits of village life in addition to sanitation. We end up getting the respondents talking about their opinions on quite a lot of village life – indeed, we call it a “village life survey.” Do you think that children would be healthier in a village where people eat wheat or where they eat rice, or does it not matter? [so far, I have not seen anyone think that this does not matter.] What about cooking fuel – do you think children would be healthier if people burned gas, or dried cow poop to cook over? What about if most people use latrines, or most people go in the open, or does that not matter?

One measure of our success is that people are willing to tell us – fancy strangers here from the district capital city to interview you – that open defecation is good for you, that latrines don’t really matter, and that finding human poop laying around isn’t really that disgusting, anyway. For example, on the very first day of practice surveying last week in Uttar Pradesh:

  • Only 45 percent of respondents said that children are healthier in villages that use latrines; a full 41 percent said that they are healthier where people defecate in the open.
  • Fully 82 percent said that they would find a dirty dog in their house more disgusting than encountering human poop on the ground. (Would you? Lizzie, Allie, Laura, Doug, Juan, I’m looking in your direction…)
  • Almost nobody says they particularly want a latrine who doesn’t have one, when given a hypothetical choice among other exciting options like a cooking pot, electric fan, or black and white TV. Contrast this with the answer you would get by walking up and asking somebody if they want a latrine: “You bet! When will you deliver it?”

There is about 73 pages’ more to the survey than this. In particular, we’ll be able to look at differences across social and demographic groups, and across places, in who thinks and does what. And we’ll be able to look at the relationship between what people think and what they do. We will know a lot of detail about how exactly people get their latrines and what they make them out of once they decide to switch. And we will have a pretty good idea of what the government, non-profits, and businesses have to do with it – or don’t. In some cases we have a pretty good guess about what we are going to find, but I am sure there will be surprises and puzzles. We will keep you posted!


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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