One of the goals of the Swachh Bharat or Clean India mission was to achieve an “open-defecation free” (ODF) India by 2 October 2019 (the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth). OD is a big problem in India contributing to child sickness, stunting and a host of permanent problems including lower IQs. As of 2011, half of Indian households didn’t have access to a latrine but since that time millions of latrines have been built and the government has encouraged (sometimes “vigorously”) latrine use.
Unfortunately, the close connection between the Swachh Bharat mission and Prime Minister Modi has made achieving the mission, or claiming to have achieved the mission, not just a political goal but a test of patriotism and support for Modi. The Swachh Bharat website, for example, proclaims that India is now 99% open defecation free, including 100% coverage in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Utter Pradesh and Bihar.
In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, states that had been declared ODF by the time of the survey, we found rural open defecation rates of about 50% and about 25%, respectively. The vast majority of villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have also been declared ODF; the quantitative survey found open defecation rates of approximately 40% and 60%, respectively, in these states (Gupta et al 2019).
How do villages, and eventually blocks, districts, and states get declared ODF despite high levels of open defecation? One reason is that ODF status is often declared where latrine coverage is, in fact, incomplete: about 30% of households in the four states we studied did not own a latrine. Another reason is that many people who own a latrine still defecate in the open. In fact, latrine use among latrine owners has not changed since 2014: one in four people who own a latrine in the 2018 survey do not use it (Gupta et al 2019).
Ambitious program need not reach their goals to be successful–progress has been made and Modi can take credit–but it’s dangerous when problems are declared solved in order to meet political timelines and narratives. Work remains to be done.