Clarity On Cleanliness

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 10 Oct 2017 11:46:46

By ADITI SINGH,

Given India’s phenomenal economic growth in recent times, it is difficult to understand why such high rates of open defecation still exist. In order to address this gap in information, we need to test the linkages between OD and its theoretical determinants at the State and national level, to allow for targeted decision-making. These include testing if lower OD rates are statistically associated with high female literacy rates, water availability, GDP of the State, and availability of sanitation infrastructure.

CLOSE to three years since the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)’s launch, do we know whether the mission has been a success? No, we don’t. The Swachhata Status Report 2016, published by National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), merely reports that the percentage of persons practising open defecation is 52.1 per cent in the rural areas and 7.5 per cent in urban areas. Does this mean there has been a significant improvement in open defecation rates?


A researcher would point out that these figures do not bear any significance unless they can be compared to a baseline. In the absence of a system to monitor, track and evaluate the impact of the SBM, India’s progress towards sanitation and cleanliness lacks accountability and transparency. The Government is aiming to achieve an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India by October 2, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji.

Open defecation is the practice of people defecating in the open, in fields, water bodies, or other open spaces instead of using a designated toilet. This process creates a vicious cycle of disease and poverty. According to World Bank projected data, India ranks highest among all South Asian countries in the percentage of people practising open defecation.

Can this alarming statistic be attributed to the fact that the practice has been widely accepted for generations, thereby becoming a well-established tradition deeply ingrained from early childhood and an accepted part of the Indian landscape? Certainly, policy-makers and academics theorise this to be the case, pointing to the rural and urban divide in open defecation rates. However, the lack of data makes it difficult for academics to provide empirical evidence for this.


Given India’s phenomenal economic growth in recent times, it is difficult to understand why such high rates of open defecation still exist. In order to address this gap in information, we need to test the linkages between OD and its theoretical determinants at the State and national level, to allow for targeted decision-making. These include testing if lower OD rates are statistically associated with high female literacy rates, water availability, GDP of the state,
and availability of sanitation infrastructure. Yet, most surveys on OD do not gather information on these indicators. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to draw inferences between them and OD rates.


The Swachhta Status Reports do not capture such indicators of interest. They also make several methodological decisions which leave their estimations of OD suspect. Firstly, the NSSO does not directly ask if respondents practise OD -- instead, the organisation calculates OD by discounting respondents who report using own, neighbours’ or community toilets.

Furthermore, the NSSO interviews only the head of the household who may not be aware of the sanitary practices of other household members. Nor do they account for a social desirability bias which makes it unlikely that respondents will openly confess to practising OD, especially when it is so highly stigmatised. Politicians often cite the success of SBM by reporting the number of latrines built under it.

But this is a faulty metric because it is not a given that latrines built automatically translate to latrine use. The suspect data coming out of the Government has led to the World Bank withholding their promise of $1.5 billion loan towards SBM; the first instalment of which was due in July of 2016. For them, the Indian Government fell short on its commitments, specifically failing to show independent verification of the findings presented in the NSSO reports.


As a society, we spend a lot of time, effort and money collecting data. India’s OD rates, for instance, have been tracked in World Bank 2001 projected data, 2011 Census data and surveys such as the IHDS, NFHS/DHS and the SQUAT survey. Yet these surveys use different methodologies which mean that their OD indicators are not comparable. They differ in terms of: The method of data collection: The number of households visited, differences in questions asked etc. Definitions of open defecation: For example, different ways of defining toilet, community toilets, public toilets, sewage network.

Reference period: The time interval between the World Bank Data, Census Data and NSSO Rapid Survey is not consistent. We need high-quality, timely and cohesive data to hold our Government accountable and be a fully functioning democracy.

In a developing economy like India, data is critical to economic, social and political decision-making. Organisations engaged in affecting policymaking should take account of the need of quality data. Data should be updated using a standard reporting timetable that is religiously adhered to. We need a broader attitudinal shift about the critical role of high-quality data in society. Unless this happens, the task of bringing about change and creating social impact becomes not only daunting, but also impossible. (INAV)