Why Toilets Alone Won't Solve India's Sanitation Crisis

Why Toilets Alone Won't Solve India's Sanitation Crisis

By Sunil Bhatia


Because more than 600 million Indians lack toilets — and must defecate outside.

By Sunil Bhatia

The author is a professor of human development at Connecticut College, a director of Friends of Shelter Associates and a fellow with the Public Voices Greenhouse through the OpEd Project.

The campaign promise was simple: “Toilets, not temples.” But three years into Narendra Modi’s premiership, it’s clear that solving India’s sanitation crisis is not as simple as building toilets. It will require engaging with the causes of structural poverty, social inequality and the lack of dignity that accompany lack of sanitation. 

The Clean India (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) campaign, launched in 2014, aims to build about 100 million toilets across India, with a budget of $29 billion. It is confronting a crisis that is more pronounced given that it has higher rates of open defecation than poorer countries such as neighboring Bangladesh and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, the scope of the open-defecation problem is astonishing. More than 600 million Indians, including 300 million women, defecate daily in bushes, fields, rivers and gutters. I have spoken to dozens of them — as well as leading sanitation activists, social workers and urban planners — in my capacity as a scholar and a director of a nonprofit organization focused on sanitation in India. 

Several women in a focus group recounted their harrowing experiences of having to defecate before sunrise or after sunset so that they could ward off sexual assaults from men. “We are scared to go alone … because we get attacked, hit by stones, get teased a lot by men,” said Saraswathi, a middle-aged woman from Sangli, Maharashtra. Hundreds of millions of women and girls in India relieve themselves only under the cover of darkness in order to avoid exposure, sexual harassment or rape. Sanitation gives these women security and an improved sense of dignity.

The women also spoke about the dreadful experience of defecating in the summer heat and in the filthy and muddy waterlogged bushes and fields during monsoons.

Some 30 percent of women from underprivileged classes are sexually assaulted, according to Dasra, a nonprofit organization based in Pune. On average, Dasra’s report says, women and girls in Indian cities hold their bladders for “13 hours a day, leaving them at risk of urinary and reproductive tract infections.” The report also highlights that in 2014, approximately 23 percent of adolescent girls dropped out of school due to lack of sanitation facilities.

An often underreported fact about the consequences of not having proper sanitation are the 1.3 million Indians, mostly women from the Dalit caste (the lowest caste), who make a living by removing feces from latrines, sewers, defunct toilets, roads and streets.

As part of the Clean India campaign, the Indian government has built more than 8 million toilets and started an important national conversation about the physical and health benefits of having access to sanitation. But the campaign will fail unless it also addresses how lack of access to toilets is not only about cleanliness and improved health but also the assault on human dignity that accompanies the experience of open defecation. The sanitation crisis is not an infrastructure project. It needs to be tackled as part of a broader national goal to decrease rising social inequality and persistent poverty.

The staggering statistics about hundreds of millions of Indians defecating in the open may indeed desensitize us. But behind the numbers are men, women and children who are enduring extreme hardships and human suffering on multiple levels on a daily basis. The 2017 Oxfam report shows that the richest 1 percent own 58 percent of India’s wealth. A few of the 57 billionaires in India have the same wealth ($216 billion) as the bottom 70 percent of the population of the country. The affluent 10 percent of India’s population own as much as 80 percent of India’s wealth.

Instead of just attacking the symptom — the lack of toilets — the government must do more to eliminate the root of this inhumane set of conditions. Poverty and entrenched inequality are the causes of widespread open defecation in India.