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Mindset a Hurdle in Reducing Defecation in Open
Jul 18, 2014

As the Government plans to reduce open defecation by constructing toilets in half of the nearly 15 lakh households on the banks of river Ganga with an aim to clean this mighty river, it will have to grapple with a bigger problem: changing people’s mindset. A survey carried out in rural north India by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) in 2013 based at Connecticut, USA points out that about 47 per cent of those who defecate in the open say they do so because they find it comfortable and convenient in the open than in closed latrines. It is the culture which matters more than construction of toilets. The study carried out in five states revealed that open defecation could be as much the issue of the mind as it is of more investment in construction of new toilets.

The Government has set a budgetary allocation of over Rs. 2,000 crore to clean Ganga. In the first step it would construct toilets in half of the 15 lakh households along the banks of Ganga in four States.

The survey showed that nearly 89 per cent of Indian households without a toilet are living in rural areas. Even if latrines were made by the Government for every household that didn’t already have one in states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, most people would still prefer to defecate in the open. 

The study is based on a survey conducted among 22,787 individual household members in villages of five states—Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

About 47 per cent of those who defecate in the open say they do so because it is pleasant, comfortable, or convenient. This preference coincides with little awareness of the health benefits of latrine usage. At least 51 per cent of people who defecate in the open report that widespread open defecation would be at least as good for child health as latrine use.

Given the fact that open defecation kills babies, impedes the physical and cognitive development of surviving children, and reduces human capital, the Government gave emphasis on toilet construction under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. The recent paper fills up the knowledge gap in understanding why toilets constructed may not be in usage or demand by looking at the beliefs and preferences of the people.

Indian households rarely build the types of inexpensive latrines that are widely used by poor households so as to reduce open defecation and save infant lives in Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, finds the study.

The study shows that the big issue could be about changing social behaviour of the citizens regarding toilet usage. Generating demand for latrine use in rural India is essential if India has to achieve its goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019.

It is very difficult to convince people to use toilets overnight. They are defecating in the open for many decades. Men and women generally go in different groups. That is the time when male discuss their business and women their family. This is the only time when elderly ladies criticise their bahus (daughter-in laws) or younger brides discuss their mother-in laws. This is a long tradition and cannot change in a jiffy.

Merely construction of toilets could not solve the problem of open defecation. If the Government is serious it should start from the powerful people in the village. Once they start using toilets the message will go down and within a year or two the whole of village will start using toilets.


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