research institute for compassionate economics

If you can’t find it in your own backyard…

Written by Dean Spears on March 21st, 2012

I’ve been staying away from the particular villages where Diane has been studying pregnancy and childbirth – one more angrazi might just be too much for her friends’ comfort. But her study is wrapping up, so this morning Diane took me on a long bicycle tour through these villages. Instead of going from our house to a village and back, we when from village to village, on the back roads. This tour – out the back way of one village, in the back way of another, village after village all morning – made salient a realization that had been lurking in the back of my mind.

I read a lot of academic papers about what people do to poop when they don’t have a toilet or latrine. It is common for these papers to make a claim along the lines that open defecation is not a health hazard in rural places because people only poop in designated open defecation zones, far away from the settled parts of the village. [Warning: this post is about to get gross.]

This is flat wrong – at least in rural Sitapur. There indeed are often socially designated open defecation areas, patches of ground, perhaps with some trees, where people go to poop. But they are not always away from people’s houses. Today we saw children almost playing in one.

We saw several directly adjoining yards that would count as part of people’s homes. We saw villages with more than one open defecation area, next to houses on different sides of the village. Often one must pass through or near them to enter the village by some routes. Frequently one can smell human feces – not cow, goat, or dog feces (know your scat) – within villages. And more than once an open defecation zone was right next to the houses of the low caste people.

And all of this is to say nothing of “dry latrines” (corners set aside to defecate within household areas) and children defecating in and around houses as a matter of course.

Once I put two and two together, I couldn’t quite figure out how the smart people in the literature had gotten this so wrong. My hunch – and I haven’t had a chance to check the books and articles – is that people who write this stylized fact have most of their experience in rural Africa, where population density is much, much lower than in rural India. Even for India, population density in rural Uttar Pradesh is quite high – we joke that it is impossible to go to a place outside in Sitapur where you cannot see another person. But, as Diane pointed out: even if population density is low, if you do not think it is problematic (or you do not internalize the externality) would you really want to walk that far to do your business? As they say, if you can’t find happiness in your own backyard…