Sanitation is the key to proper hygiene, which is essential for a health and safety of the public. India’s record, especially when it comes to sanitation, has been abysmal so far. According to the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund Joint Monitoring Report (2017), more than half of the open defecation that occurs anywhere in the world occurs in rural India. .The United Nations has included the elimination of open defecation globally by 2030 among its Sustainable Development Goals. However, thanks to the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission, it appears India is now primed for a “toilet revolution”.


The mission, launched in 2014, aims to end open defecation by October 2019, and provide new sanitary toilets to more than 60 million homes. The Indian government has been subsidising lavatories in remote villages for over three decades, but with poor outcomes, frustrating its hopes to wean its citizens off the obnoxious practice. However, the government‘s drive so far has so far, proved to have taken great strides in eliminating public defecation.  A 2017 Economic Survey revealed that the number of persons defecating in the open in rural areas, which was 55 crores in October 2014, declined to 25 crores in January 2017. 296 districts and 307,349 villages across India have been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF).

The ambitious goals set by the Indian government to clean up the nation faces several problems. In all probability, the Centre may not be able to achieve its goals within the set time limit. Around 450 million people continue to defecate in the open—behind bushes, by roadsides, on river banks and railway tracks. In cities, 157 million urban dwellers currently lack decent toilet facilities. Much of the solid waste is emptied into rivers, lakes, and ponds, with the untreated faecal sludge adding to the ever escalating levels of harmful pollution. The circulation of faecal bacteria in the environment spreads infectious diseases, and chronic infections that impair the human body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Communities with poor sanitation end up impoverished in numerous other ways. Adults fall sick and can’t work and provide for their families. Children have to cope with cruel bouts of diarrhoea and pneumonia just to reach the age of five.

Several surveys have revealed that increased availability of public lavatories across expanded areas, does not necessarily guarantee greater usage. The reality is that in many people only use toilets only in emergencies. In rural areas, especially in the past, toilets was often the only concrete structure in the house, and were mostly used as a storeroom for firewood, cow-dung cakes, grass, chickens, and food grains. In some cases, toilets also doubled as goat-sheds.

A study in October 2017 conducted by the Institute of Development Studies, Water Aid and Praxis, suggests that several ODF villages, which have been certified as ODF by a third-party evaluation, still practice open defecation. In the case of one of the villages—Pali, Rajasthan—which was observed as part of the study, the total usage of toilets was only 1%. The study also pointed towards coercive approaches used by vigilance committees, who imposed sanctions, such as the seizure of ration cards, stopping of rations, disallowance of benefits from a panchayat-related scheme, and disconnection of electricity—all of which was observed occurring in the village of Sehore, Madhya Pradesh. In several areas, coercion is allegedly still being used to meet the targets. This is in direct opposition of the government’s claims of the initiative being driven through awareness and demand creation.

According to the central government’s definition, “ODF is the termination of fecal oral transmission, defined by a) no visible feces found in the environment/village; and b) every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of feces.” To be declared ODF, in accordance with government norms, an area must not only have toilets with access to water but also ensure that all residents actually use these facilities.  There is a need for stringent social audits for monitoring the progress and certifying that the toilets are fit for regular use. There are rampant cases of local officials    siphoning off funds and then cooking up their own records by falsifying figures to show full achievement of utilization of funds and targets for construction of toilets there have been instances where people have refused to accept toilets because of their inferior constructing making their usage difficult.

The government’s campaign needs to link sanitation to a series of other actions related to the social and cultural dimensions of sanitation. A strong cultural resistance to the current campaign is perhaps the main stumbling block. Collective behavioural change is pre-requisite for an effective sanitation programme.

Apart from septic tanks being expensive for the majority, one of the primary issues   is solid and liquid waste management as these tanks require waste disposal every year. At present, the toilets that are built are mostly single-pit latrines that clog up every few years in the villages, and have to be emptied by hand. People link that to manual scavenging, which is a social stigma and has horrifying implications associated with India’s age-old, cruel caste system. Till date, in many parts of India, scavengers are considered to be at the bottom of the social ladder.

With millions of new toilets slated to be set up, more sanitation workers will be needed to carry out solid waste management. This is sure to be challenging, as such jobs are stigmatised. Indeed, the conditions for such workers are very demeaning. Mechanisation of the process could go some way to help ensure that workers do not need to enter the sewers, and traditional emptiers of pits become part of a new, respectable, well-paid sanitary economy. Waste collection, recycling, and disposal, including the installation of local incinerators, treatment plants, aerobic digesters,   also present commercial opportunities.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has also been highlighting the relevance of twin-pit technology—a technique in which two pits are constructed, so that when one fills up, it can be covered and allowed to decompose. This technology is considered to be a “complete treatment plant” in itself and does not need to be emptied, especially since its contents become ordinary manure, once left to dry for a year.

Many financially well-off families in India prefer building a toilet for convenience rather than health benefits. Arghyam, an organisation in Bengaluru, feels that the government is spending too much money on toilets and very little on behavioural training. People need to consider toilets as inspirational and build them by themselves, after understanding the holistic benefits of having unfettered access to them, rather than perceiving them as handout. Convincing people that age-old practices must be given up for the sake of hygiene and reducing disease is not as simple as it may appear. What you need is a widespread motivation and information campaign,” says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh, a non-profit organisation which, apart from building 1.3 million household toilets in villages, manages thousands of fairly clean toils in cities charging nominal fees.

UNICEF recently undertook a study across 10,000 rural households in 12 cities to estimate the cost benefits of the mission. It found out that every rupee invested in improving sanitation will help save Rs 4.30. The study found that the campaign could lead to each household saving around Rs 50,000 per year. The study concluded that if 85% of household members use their washrooms to defecate, the financial savings induced by improved sanitation had a cost-benefit ratio of 430% on average. In other words, one rupee invested allows a saving of 4.30 rupees.

The government’s current keen interest in helping make this mission a success, will likely propel entrepreneurs to come up with creative solutions to some of the glitches. The ecosystem is fast taking shape and convergence among various stakeholders, and actors should help us see an end to this appalling and demeaning practice.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at


Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Subscribe to our Telegram channel



  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Improvement of sanitation facilities and providing clean environment is a good idea which is not being implemented properly. Mere cosmetic works here and there and celebrities cleaning for an hour will not solve problems. The goal of total ‘ toilet revolution ‘ can be achieved only by sincere implementation of the policy by strict monitoring and funds allocation