Mumbai: With a little more than a year to go for Swachh Bharat Mission’s deadline of open-defecation-free India, patchy access to toilets, incomplete toilet construction and rampant open defecation among households with a toilet were some findings of a new study in gram panchayats (village councils) declared open defecation-free (ODF) in Rajasthan.

Only one of nine gram panchayats had 100% access to toilets, and 38% of toilet owners defecated in the open on the day of the survey, noted the study conducted by Accountability Initiative, a research group of Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank based in New Delhi.

Open defecation was found even in two gram panchayats verified to be ODF.

“It brings into question both the hurry to declare ODF as well as the authenticity of the verification process,” said authors Avani Kapur, director of Accountability Initiative, and Devashish Deshpande, senior research associate, in an email response. “Fundamentally, it also brings into question the objective of the programme--and whether ODF is only toilet counting in another name.”

The findings of the study are significant given that the October 2, 2019, deadline to end open defecation in India is, as we said, less than 15 months away. As of July 30, 2018, 67.2% of villages were declared open defecation-free, according to Swachh Bharat Mission’s dashboard.

Unsafe water, poor hygiene practices and inadequate sanitation contributed to high stunting in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Chhattisgarh, IndiaSpend reported in April 2017. Improved sanitation facilities and delayed pregnancy in India could reduce the rates of anaemia in pregnant women faster, IndiaSpend reported in June 2018.

Villages are considered ‘open defecation-free’ when no faeces are openly visible and every household and public/community institution uses safe technology to dispose of faeces in such a way that there is no contamination of surface soil, groundwater or surface water; excreta is inaccessible to flies or animals, with no manual handling of fresh excreta; and there are no odour and unsightly conditions.

Usually, a gram panchayat declares a village to be ODF, following which the state government is supposed to carry out a verification within three months, and a second verification around six months after the self-declaration.

More than 49 million households in India have toilets--up from 38.7% in 2014 to 69.04% in 2017. Yet, only 62% of 207 districts and 63% of 249,811 villages declared ‘open-defecation-free’ have been verified, FactChecker had reported on October 2, 2017.

Rajasthan's bid to be open defecation-free

In July 2014, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje had announced March 2018 as the target for declaring the state ODF. The implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission by the district administrations began in phases in July 2015. In the first phase, of the 544 gram panchayats (GPs) in the Udaipur district, 105 were targeted for ODF declaration.

By November 2016, 53 gram panchayats declared themselves ODF. By June 2017, when the Accountability Initiative study was being carried out, this number almost tripled to 141. Of the gram panchayats declared ODF, Udaipur district had verified 49%, said the study. In March 2018, Udaipur declared all 544 gram panchayats ODF, meeting the target.

Between April-June 2017, Accountability Initiative surveyed 565 households in nine gram panchayats in Rajasthan and conducted a qualitative survey of the administration and frontline workers to understand the outcomes, and the processes which led to them being declared ODF.

The aim was to verify the current status of sanitation in ODF-declared gram panchayats. The study also sought to evaluate models of incentive provision and behaviour change adopted by the panchayats, and understand the role of stakeholders--administrative machinery and frontline workers--in this process.

36% households with toilets had at least one member defecating in the open

Overall, more than a third of the toilet owners (38%) reported defecating in the open on the day of the survey. Barring one, none of the gram panchayats surveyed, as we said, reported 100% access on the day of the survey.

A little more than 60% of the respondents reported using toilets regularly across all seasons, the study found, leaving nearly 40% of them to practice open defecation at some time during the year.

Among those who have toilets, the usage seemed to be declining. In a 2015 Accountability Initiative survey in Udaipur, 26% of households with fully constructed toilets were found to have a member defecating in the open. In a 2017 survey, this rose to 36%.

In villages declared ODF, 18% households had no access to toilets

Overall, 18% of surveyed households across the new and verified ODF gram panchayats lacked access to a toilet. This proportion was constant across caste and social categories as well as rural and urban gram panchayats.

The access varied from 43% in Toda gram panchayat to 100% in Kathar gram panchayat.

Overall, 14% of individual toilets were incomplete, the study found. There were significant variations across gram panchayats--from 62% incomplete toilets in Gadawat to none in Kathar and Bedla.

Access to toilets in public places was also low, found the study. While all schools and 81% of anganwadi centres had access to a toilet, availability of toilets was low in Samudayik Kendras (community centres)--with only 43% of them having a toilet facility--and even lower for health centres (19%).

Lack of communication, undue importance to women’s safety

Despite the importance given to behaviour change in the Swachh Bharat Mission’s guidelines and to demand generation in the community, it wasn’t always implemented on the field.

Since the gram panchayats sometimes got less than 30 days to be declared ODF, “the process diverged from the ideal at different points”, the study said.

Despite 71% of the information education and communication (IEC) budget being earmarked for interpersonal communication, only 51% of the budget was used for it, while the rest was spent on training and other expenses.

Swachh Bharat Mission’s guidelines oppose undue attention to women’s safety or dignity in the communication, since it reinforces gender stereotypes and leads to low uptake by men. Yet, women’s safety was the third most common reason for building a toilet in the study--after convenience and panchayat pressure.

The reason for building a toilet had an impact on its future usage.

Those who reported privacy/prestige as the primary reason to build a toilet had 100% toilet usage on the day of the survey. Those who said they did not know (why they built the toilet) had least usage (20%), while 45% of those who built a toilet following a suggestion by the panchayat reported usage on the day of the survey--indicating that coercive tactics such as removal of names from public distribution system and threats by administration, which were used in some of the gram panchayats are often counterproductive.

Messaging on the importance of toilets for health reasons, privacy concerns and convenience were more effective motivators for toilet usage, data show.

No focus on faecal sludge management

ODF declaration does not include faecal sludge management; by placing it outside its core requirement, there is little pressure to pursue it or to sustain it.

While the guidelines list single pit, twin pit, septic tanks and bio toilets as safe toilet technologies, since a septic tank will require manual cleaning and single pit toilets will require manual clearance and handling of faecal matter, both would lead to manual scavenging which is illegal.

The guidelines thus recommend construction of a twin leach pit toilet--that is safe for disposal--in rural areas. Yet, most households with toilets had septic tanks and only three had twin pits.

This is because of the perception that septic tanks are the most preferred options and since they are more expensive, most households spent Rs 34,631 to Rs 42,657 on construction of toilets--three to four times the subsidy of Rs.12,000.

Further, 19% toilet owners reported taking loans to facilitate construction, paying anywhere between 24%-36% as annual interest. The average loan amount was close to Rs 59,000.

“The lack of awareness on the part of the beneficiaries suggests that the behaviour change and IEC efforts in explaining toilet technology and its implications have not succeeded,” noted the study. “On the contrary, the appeal to family pride and honour in the communication activities might nudge relatively well-off households to opt for the more expensive and (by implication) better toilets.”

Only 1% households clean their own toilet pits

Only 1% of respondents said they empty their toilet pits on their own, while 86% said they would call manual scavengers to empty their pits when required. Another 13% either did not respond to the question or said they would revert to open defecation when such a time came.

Given the preference for septic tanks and unavailability of mechanised suction machines in rural India, villagers either stop using the toilets or employ manual scavengers.

“The findings suggest that not only does the programme pay insufficient attention to sludge management, there is a possibility that an unintended outcome of the programme may be to give an impetus to manual scavenging in the medium term, unless immediate and strong corrective measures are taken,” said Kapur and Deshpande.

As many as 73% of respondents said no one in their communities would empty their own toilet pits, while another 24% did not comment on the question.

The government seems to be aware of the problem and is using mass media to spread awareness about twin pits. “This will not however make a difference to the toilets, many of which can be presumed to be single pits from several studies including this, which have already been constructed which are in the crores according to ministry of drinking water and sanitation”, the authors said.

(Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)

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