India is aiming to become an open defecation free country by October 2019. Although the Indian Government is building toilets on a massive scale, the numbers don’t match the reality – toilets simply remain unused. Properly designed and constructed toilets with washrooms for women, together with the essential component of education around sanitation and hygiene practices, are key to making India an open defecation free country, argues Jim Baldwin, Just a Drop’s Project Engineer for India

"Clean India Mission" (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) is a nation-wide campaign in India that aims to clean up India's cities, towns, and rural areas. Launched by the government in October 2014, Clean India Mission’s objectives include eliminating open defecation through the construction of household-owned and community-owned toilets.

As of January 2019, the Indian Government has reported constructing 91,938,000 toilets (Source: Ministry of Drinking Water Supply) across the country since October 2014.  Since the government’s sanitation programme began in 1986, the subsidy paid to qualifying families (and therefore the incentive the scheme provides) has increased from a few hundred to 12,000 rupees. This has resulted in a massive acceleration in the number of toilets constructed in 2018-9. The number of self-declared open defecation free villages in the same year was 546,609. (Source: Swachh Bharat Mission statement 23/01/2019) This should indicate open defecation is no longer practised in these villages but sadly it does not. Most of these toilets are simply not being used.

Ask women and young girls in Indian villages what they wish for most and they say safety, security and privacy relating to bathing and defecation. Open defecation is risky for them and often results in rape, pestering by men, snake bite and assaults by dogs and pigs. A toilet, however, is a massive change in culture for them as their practice is to go out into the fields to go to the toilet, as they have done for generations.

A better step is a toilet with an integral bathing area. Here women have the safety, security and privacy they wish for, firstly for bathing and then they gradually start to use the toilet. Not at first, though. It may take months before they use the toilet and then they make their children do the same. Men are usually the last to change, but they recognise the sense during the monsoon rains.

Billions of rupees have been spent by the government in building toilets that are not being used. Only 20 percent of the toilets constructed since 2001 were still in place by 2011. (Source: Census 2011) The rest either had become unusable due to poor construction quality and lack of maintenance, or were just abandoned. This was largely due to complete lack of ownership by families.

People are expected to pass a proportion of the government subsidy they receive to local officials. However, in some states up to 50% of the government subsidy for a toilet is reputedly ending up in the pockets of government officials. This impacts on the quality of construction, as contractors have had to give away more money to officials than their profit. As a result, contractors cut corners. Toilets that rely on two pits for long term sustainability end up with only one, and the size of a toilet is often reduced by a foot (3 x 3 feet or less, instead of 4 x 3 feet) - which puts people off trying to use them. Many of these villages rely on a supply of water from a hand pump, and a person who has waited hours in line is unlikely to flush a toilet with the water they have just carried.

Looking at any government website to find the impact of sanitation measures is very revealing. Progress is indicated by the numbers of toilets being constructed, as declared to the Central Government. Use is never questioned, or revealed. It is too hard to measure. The other measure of success is whether a village - or even a District - is open defecation free. The final measure is if a State is open defecation free. But these figures are not checked by the government, they are self-declared, sometimes not even by the village itself, but by an official, such as a Block Development Officer, acting on behalf of the village.

As part of Just a Drop’s projects in India, we provide individual toilets, which include water tanks, drinking water pots with a tap, soak-pits and compost pits for a small number of families, together with hygiene and sanitation education. These 'model families' then act as benchmarks or guides for the rest of the community to copy, and support them to obtain government funding for their own household latrines.

Unfortunately, the government design does not allow for a bathing area inside the toilet, which is invariably asked for by the community in a Just a Drop Project. The extra cost of a bathing place has to be paid for by the requesting family, as it’s not covered in the government design. Because of this, Just a Drop is looking towards incorporating a hinged bathing platform that will rest on the toilet pan. This has been welcomed by the communities we work with, as it brings private bathing inside the area of a standard government toilet, which then qualifies for the Rs 12000 payment.

This fundamental change has come at an opportune time. State Swachh Bharat Missions have realised that families are largely not using these recently constructed toilets and have started an updated programme, called Swachh Bharat Plus that primarily looks at open defecation free sustainability. Recent Just a Drop discussions with UNICEF in India have revealed that our proposed bathing platform should attract more women to use the toilet and thereby improve sustainability.

Until there is a better recognition of the problems and a more pragmatic approach to funding and eventual use is adopted, open defecation will continue to plague the lives of the population of India and health indicators will continue to plateau.

- Jim Baldwin, Just a Drop's Project Engineer for India, May 2019

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