research institute for compassionate economics

A guru gets my goat

Written by Dean Spears on February 22nd, 2014

Last week I was with the survey team in Jodhpur. Jodhpur is one of 33 districts of Rajasthan state, and has a population of 3.7 million people in the 2011 census, almost exactly the same count as the 3.8 million in my home U.S. state of Oklahoma!

Open defecation is common in Jodhpur, as it is elsewhere in rural north India – but I was struck by the novelty of the desert-like scrub land, as well as by a special bit of patriarchal technology: many rural women in Jodhpur covered their faces with colorful veils made of a special synthetic fabric that was easier for them to see out of. Relative to other places I’ve worked, this seemed to lower the cost of keeping women veiled essentially always, including during interviews. This may be common elsewhere – or the villages I saw may be unusual – but it left me with a reminder that new technology need not always be freedom enhancing or welfare enhancing.

One of the interviews I sat in on was with a young man in his 20s, wearing no shirt and fiddling throughout the interview with a thoroughly broken screwdriver. Their household was poor enough that, when the survey asked about what his household owns, they owned so few things that his answers triggered special wealth questions for poor people: asking whether everyone in the household has shoes and at least two sets of clothes.

For the good news, he was well informed about the disease consequences of open defecation. When we asked him which was better for children’s health, he knew the right answer was to use latrines. He even explained that there was something important about sickness in the open.

But later in the interview, we asked if he had ever heard a message about pooping from a guru, that is, from a religious leader. Hindus (like our young man) almost always say no; Muslims (who are more likely to use latrines) often say yes. But he surprised us by answering that yes, he had heard a sanitation message: the guru told him to go far from the house in the fields!

The guru’s message apparently got through: like so many people, he thought that going in a latrine or in the open were both “impure” if they were near home; going in the open far from your home counts as “pure.” Indeed, in our disgust questions, he was clear that he would be more disgusted by a dirty dog where his family cooks than by finding somebody’s feces on the ground.

So, we know about this young man’s beliefs, views, and preferences. Latrines are healthy, but impure. What would you guess he does? Does he defecate in the open, or use a latrine? Both, apparently: usually he defecates in the open. But, some days he uses another family’s latrine, far from their house. This isn’t especially common, and I’m not sure how often he even does this (he may have been saying something that he thought we wanted to hear). What was clear was that getting a latrine wasn’t a priority: when we asked, he said he would rather have a pressure cooker or a goat.

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