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Promoting the use of simple pit latrines in rural India: Findings from Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka and Odisha

Blog Post2 min read

For the past three years, r.i.c.e. has been collaborating with 3ie on supporting projects that are testing different strategies for promoting the use of simple pit latrines in rural India. Four teams, comprised of researchers and implementation agencies, came up with different interventions to promote latrine use in rural India, and tested them in four states. Many of these interventions specifically addressed fears surrounding pit emptying that are rooted in ideas of purity and untouchability. There were engaging demonstrations on showing how long it takes for a soak pit to fill and that decomposed sludge looks and feels just like other kinds of fertilizer. They randomly assigned the interventions to be done in some villages and not others. The findings of these studies are now out. You can read the teams' reports here: Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, and Odisha.

Some important lessons we learned from these projects include:

- Research shaped around informing policy is challenging, and difficult to do usefully! These projects got started at a time when the SBM became very active in villages throughout India. What this means is that reported open defecation decreased substantially in many of the study areas, in both places that were randomly assigned to get interventions and those that weren't. We don't know whether the reported declines after the SBM reflect real behavior change or whether people simply reported less open defecation because the government had been discouraging it. But, they make it difficult to understand how well the interventions themselves worked.

- It is very difficult to change deeply rooted beliefs around purity and untouchability. The Bihar team implemented several demonstrations to educate on pit emptying, and how it is ok for someone in the household to do it. However, in the follow-up survey, most households still reported that pit emptying was "inconvenient," and they would hire someone else to empty a decomposed pit. These beliefs are unlikely to be changed just by informational campaigns targeted at pit emptying, and may require broader change in beliefs around purity and untouchability.

- We learned a lot about measuring latrine use! A survey experiment found higher rates of reported open defecation from an individual-level question that asks about open defecation or latrine use for every household member, compared to a household-level question that asks about the behavior of everyone in the household in one question. The Gujarat team also developed another tool for measuring latrine use: a physical activity questionnaire that asked how many minutes a person walked to defecate in the fields, among a series of other physical activity questions. This tool was designed to try to hide the open defecation question, to try to minimize social desirability bias. It found slightly less open defecation than the individual questionnaire. See their report for more on this.


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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