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Can Modi’s next wave wash away open defecation?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-06-2014 Diane Coffey

Across India and around the world, people noticed when candidate Narendra Modi announced that one of the top priorities of prime minister Modi’s government would be the elimination of open defecation.

Modi is right to have selected changing sanitation behaviour as a headline priority. More than half of all people in India defecate in the open without using a toilet or latrine and more than half of the people in the world who defecate in the open live in India. China has essentially eliminated open defecation, as has Bangladesh. Yet, most people in India live in a district where average exposure to open defecation increased between 2001 and 2011.

Widespread open defecation is not merely an odd Indian exception: it is a profound handicap to the health and economic possibilities of the nation. Research shows that early-life disease caused by open defecation stunts physical growth, reduces cognitive achievement, and limits adult economic productivity. Modi is right to recognize the urgency of this threat.

So, eliminating open defecation is good policy, and it is good politics. The only problem is that it may be very difficult. For Modi to succeed where earlier efforts have failed will require a radically new approach, straight out of his own electoral playbook: eliminating open defecation requires nothing short of a mass social movement.

It is crucial not to under-imagine the scale of the challenge. Recent newspaper reports indicate that the new government is planning a “multi-million dollar sanitation programme”. If so, that would be troubling: it would not only be a budget cut for sanitation, it would be inadequate to reach the 130 million households in India who defecate in the open. But the real need is not of spending money, and we are optimistic that Modi has something greater in mind.

Government latrine construction programmes have come and gone over the decades. Construction money has been used to line pockets rather than dig pits; bricks and cement have become rooms for bathing and grain storage rather than latrines. Open defecation in India has stubbornly remained. Giving people pit latrines has not worked, in large part, because of the simple, unpleasant fact that too many people in India do not want to use them. We have spent much of the past year interviewing over three thousand rural families in six north Indian states, as well as interviewing families in Bangladesh and Nepal and visiting sanitation programmes throughout India. Half of the people we interviewed in India who did not own a latrine maintained that children would be no healthier in a village where everybody used latrines than in a village where everybody defecated in the open. Over 40% of families who own a latrine have at least one household member who nonetheless defecates in the open. Most people without a latrine told us getting one was not their priority, and 21% did not want one at all, even asked to imagine “there is no lack of money to buy” it.

Perhaps we didn’t even need a scientific survey to know that for many Indian households, safe sanitation is not a priority. How else could it be that so many families have latrines that nobody uses? Or a latrine that one person uses, while the rest continue to go to the fields? How else could it be that so many countries which are poorer than India have much lower rates of open defecation? How else could it be that economic growth has done little to help stunted children grow? How else could it be that so many families could afford a simple pit latrine, but choose to defecate in the open?

Of course, there are some people, especially the old and disabled, for whom a government-provided latrine might do a lot of good. But for most part, households in rural India want a fancy latrine with a fancy septic tank—or no latrine at all. Affordable pit latrines, which are cleaned out after five or 10 years and which are the mainstay of lifesaving rural sanitation in other developing counties, are nearly impossible to find in rural north India. Open defecation in India will be eliminated when households choose to build and use the simple pit latrines that they can already afford.

Perhaps the most important political strategy of a new government is the management of expectations: setting the goals by which an administration shall be judged. To his credit, Modi has already established his own clear standard by which he invites history and political talking heads to judge his accomplishment: the elimination of open defecation. This is a steep challenge. Luckily, Modi may already have the exact ingredient he needs: the attention of a people ready for social change.

Perhaps only a figure as popular as Modi is today can create the mass movement India needs to end open defecation. It will not be enough to build latrines. To reach his goal, Modi will have to build new knowledge and, more importantly, new attitudes. Modi should send a clear message that in modern India, open defecation is a thing of the past. Let Modi declare, again and again, that open defecation is not acceptable anywhere in India. It is not healthy. It is not modern. Above all, let him say that it is not Indian to defecate in the open.

Like nobody before, Modi has the power to say so. And if he does, loudly and repeatedly, then Indian citizens will hear. In all 600,000 villages, Indians know about the Modi wave. They will know if the Modi wave turns next to wash away open defecation.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears are economists at the Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics and executive directors of r.i.c.e.

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