research institute for compassionate economics

Another misguided toilet building target

Written by Payal Hathi on July 9th, 2014

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) issued an order to all states saying that they must construct over 5.2 million toilets by August 31st, the 100th day of the new government’s term. That’s just 58 days from the date of the original order. We very much appreciate Down to Earth’s response, which calculates just how unrealistic this target is: in order to meet their goal, the government would have to build one toilet every second from now until the end of August.

Even more important than the impracticality of the target is the unfortunate fact that this strategy continues the same construction-focused ideas of the past, which clearly have not worked in the Indian context. From our SQUAT survey, we know that most people who own a government-constructed latrine defecate in the open anyway.

Further, the MDWS order says nothing about changing the behavior or attitudes of the many people who prefer not to use a latrine, so if the goal is to end open defecation, this massive construction plan is very likely headed for failure. Using a simple model, we also found that if the government did actually construct a latrine for every household in our survey that did not have one, without doing anything to change preferences about open defecation, more than half of people in our focus-state sample would still defecate in the open.

It is indeed sad to see that when given the opportunity to take meaningful action towards ending open defecation, the government has yet again chosen to ignore the challenge of motivating people to use latrines, and instead decided to implement more of the same flawed policies of the past. In addition to changing people’s minds to want to use a latrine, we also need to convince policymakers that current and future policy must increasingly focus on toilet use, not just construction.