This book chapter discusses why rural Indians tend to reject affordable sanitation options, using which many poorer countries in the developing world have either completely eliminated or have successfully reduced open defecation.
The practice of open defecation has negative externalities associated with it and therefore necessitates government intervention. When people leave their faeces in the environment, their germs infect others. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to germs spread by open defecation, which can make a person sick even if she herself uses a latrine. Indeed, there is now considerable evidence that open defecation kills many thousands of children in India each year and stunts the growth of hundreds of millions more.
Over the years the governments’ have made efforts towards addressing the issue through various rural sanitation programs. However, a 2018 survey conducted by r.i.c.e., a research institute for compassionate economics, and by Accountability Initiative (AI), at the Centre for Policy Research, confirms that, contrary to government claims, open defecation has not been eliminated from the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
This is because the currently running Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), albeit laudable in several respects, repeats some of the mistakes of prior sanitation programmes. The approach of building latrines for households that do not have them has been tried and has failed before. This is because many villagers do not want to use pit latrines. People associate pits with manual scavenging and will not empty their own pits. With good reason, people from sweepers castes increasingly refuse to do this work.
This calls for a new sanitation policy with more realistic goals for eliminating open defecation. The next rural sanitation programme should experiment with teaching people about how pit latrines work, and perhaps with professionalizing latrine pit–emptying services in accordance with the Anti-Manual Scavenging Act. Above all, if we would like the next sanitation programme to bring us closer to a Swachh Bharat, both government and citizens must work to dismantle the caste ethos that is central to India’s sanitation challenge.