India Is Building Millions of Toilets, but That’s the Easy Part

Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, June 4, 2015

Rameshwar Natholi received an unexpected gift from the government recently when workmen descended on his modest home in this rural village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and built a brand-new toilet in his front yard.

Natholi, a farmworker, said he never wanted one. Most people in his village have been relieving themselves in the open fields for years.

But as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Clean India” campaign to provide new sanitary toilets to more than 60 million homes by 2019, Mukhrai has been in the midst of a toilet-building boom since April.

More than 53 percent of Indian homes–about 70 percent in the villages–lack toilets. Poor sanitation and contaminated water cause 80 percent of the diseases afflicting rural India, and diarrhea is a leading killer of children younger than 5, UNICEF says.

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But building toilets is the easy part. Getting people to use them is the real challenge, officials say.

“We never asked for a toilet. Now we are stuck with it,” said Natholi, 22, as he opened the squat toilet to show that it has not been used. His 62-year-old father peered in and shook his head. “Having a toilet so close to the house is not a good idea. The pit is too small; it will fill up quickly. I don’t want the bother of cleaning it up frequently. Going out to the open field is healthier. The open breeze outside is better than sitting inside this tiny room.”

Modi has made toilet-building and sanitation a rallying cry since October. He has enlisted large companies to help. In the past year, his government has built more than 5.8 million toilets–up from 4.9 million the previous year. But reports show that many of them have gone unused or that they are being used to store grain or clothes or to tether goats, thwarting Modi’s sanitation revolution.

“Even as we accelerate toilet construction now, much more needs to be done to persuade people to use them,” said Chaudhary Birender Singh, India’s minister for rural development, sanitation and drinking water. “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it. But we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.”

The government budget for raising awareness largely remained unspent for years. Thousands of villages were declared to have ended open defecation since 2006, but many have since returned to the practice.

Critics also say that the government’s great toilet race has turned into a vortex of corruption in which villagers and middlemen siphon money by creating fake ledger entries about toilet construction.

After years of promoting toilet use by advocating the health benefits, many regions of India began using women as toilet ambassadors. Prospective brides were urged to shun potential grooms whose villages did not have toilets. Now, the campaign has begun to promote toilets as key to women’s security.

Numerous television ads and signs on village walls ask families to forbid their daughters and daughters-in-law to defecate in the open.

But an unintended consequence of this campaign has been the perception that toilets are just for women.

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India’s poor toilet habits have little to do with income or limited access to water. They are influenced more by India’s centuries-old caste system, in which members of the lowest group–formerly called “untouchables”–would clear away human waste.

“The act of emptying the pit latrine is associated with the socially degrading caste system,” said Sangita Vyas, managing director at Rice, a New Delhi-based research group that studies sanitation issues. “People fear a situation when their pit fills up and there is nobody willing to clean it because of the social stigma. That fear discourages sustained use of toilets. ”

A Rice survey in 300 villages last year showed that more than 40 percent of homes with working toilets still showed evidence of open defecation. The report said that toilets built by the government, typically smaller, are least likely to be used.

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