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Modi Govt’s Scatological Concerns Need Clean-Up

Suhit K Sen |
A toilet mission with statistical gaps cannot inspire trust.

On Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that rural India had been rendered free of the practice of open defecation. Urban India, one presumes, is set to emulate the countryside though no announcement has been made about its transformation.

The announcement came on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), often uncritically celebrated at home and abroad. This claim about the defecating habits of Indians living in the countryside is based on the prior claim that since the launch of the cleanliness mission, close to 10 crore toilets have been built in the country. This claim was made in the Economic Survey in July this year. Staying with the statistics, the Union government says that while the decennial census of 2011 showed that 69.3% of rural households didn’t have a toilet or latrine, but by June 2019, every household in 30 states and union territories had the facility.

The current government has, as the one preceding it had, mastered the art of cooking up statistics to validate impressive, though often illusory, claims about its achievements. That is not to contest the figures cited in the Economic Survey, but to question the conclusion announced by Modi. 

As for the statistical claims, one incident should suffice to urge caution against being too trusting. On 10 April 2018, Modi had claimed, to bolster his praise of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s leadership, that the Bihar government had built 850,000 toilets in a week. At a public event. That works out, as Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav had calculated at the time, to almost 85 a minute.

But that’s not the primary issue. Common sense indicates that there are two necessary, but not sufficient, conditions that have to be satisfied if a toilet has to be functional: one, it has to be connected to a functioning sewerage system; and, two, running water must be available in the area in which the toilet is located. Common sense, again, suggests that these two conditions are not simultaneously met in swathes of rural India.

Unfortunately, the figures available for sanitation are based on the availability of and access to toilets. It is known that almost India has achieved near-100% toilet coverage, but it is not easy to find out how many of these toilets are in use. The government claims that 95% of toilets in rural India are used. In the absence of credible figures for the availability of sewerage connections and running water as a percentage of total population, the jury must remain out.

There are indications that Modi’s claims are suspect. Studies conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) in 2014 and 2018 suggested that 44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan defecated in the open less than a year ago. According to SBM, all the three states were either fully or largely free of open defecation at the beginning of this year. 

The 2018 RICE survey also found the government’s claim that every household had a toilet was misleading. While government figures claimed that 92% of households in Bihar had a toilet (in December 2018), the RICE survey found that 50% of them did not have one. The corresponding percentages for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh were 100 and 90, 78 and respectively.

While the RICE study questioned the government’s claims about sanitation, it also highlighted the positive outcomes. The access to toilets had risen sharply: in 2018, 71% of the rural population in these states owned a latrine compared with 37% in 2014.This increase was largely driven by the SBM. It also revealed that 57% of rural households that did not have a toilet/latrine in 2014 had one by 2018 and 42% of them had received government support, though the impact could vary significantly between states.

Why should we trust the RICE survey over the government’s claims? First, because, as mentioned, the government’s manipulation of statistics and its tendency to prevaricate on a range of issues, exponentially greater since 2014 than earlier, does not inspire confidence. We could refer, as far as statistics are concerned, to the government’s questionable manipulation or suppression of facts and figures relating to the economy, mainly over issues of growth and employment.

Second, because the government’s claims are supported by circular reasoning. If you define sanitation quality or coverage by the fact of having a toilet or not, then you can palpably demonstrate progress just by building toilets. In this respect, the lack of credible statistics on the availability of sewerage connections and running water undermine the government’s tautological claims.

Third, there is, again, no credible, demonstrated figures of toilet use. As recent newspaper reports show, like the RICE survey, that in many places toilets do not get used because of a variety of reasons. We have mentioned lack of running water and the lack of sewerage connectivity. Another report shows that in many places toilets do not get used for cultural reasons, manifested in the idea that having a toilet in the house defiles the latter or because the quality of the toilets installed are poor and thus not fit for purpose. In some cases, the construction has been seen to be incomplete as well. The report also shows, as a matter of fact, that the targets for providing toilets have not been met in the first place, contrary to the government’s claims. It cites instances from Karnataka, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The report quotes two workers associated with the SBM who are enthusiastic about it but admit that rural India is nowhere near free of open defecation.

It is not that the Swachh Bharat Mission is not a critical intervention. The point is that it has its share of flaws and until their existence is acknowledged, clearly they cannot be rectified. 

Suhit Kumar Sen is a freelance journalist. Views are personal. 

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