Open defecation in India: forcing people to stop is not the solution

(Note: First published The Guardian.)

The Swachh Bharat Mission set a goal to end open defecation by 2019, but state governments must let communities make the change themselves

Pradeep wakes up every morning before the cockerels start crowing. He leaves his house and starts whistling; a signal for all his friends to gather. They talk among themselves and branch off in different directions across the village. They are on a mission.

As dawn slowly breaks in this rural corner of Sehore district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, villagers leave their homes carrying a small dabba (container) to perform a ritual as old as humanity. As men and women find a quiet and secluded corner and start going down on their haunches, Pradeep and his friends spring out whistling and topple their dabbas of water. Calling themselves the Dabba Dol Gang, Pradeep and his friends (children between eight and 13 years old) use their unique and courageous method to draw attention to the people defecating in the open, in an attempt to prevent them from doing so in the future.

Pradeep is one of thousands across India who are trying to solve one of the world’s greatest challenges; how to get 560 million people in India to stop going to the toilet outside.

Ever since the re-branding and re-launch of the Indian government’s flagship sanitation campaign, the Swachh Bharat Mission, the country’s sanitation sector has been galvanised to debate and take action with a sense of urgency. The goal is ambitious: make India open defecation-free by 2 October 2019 – the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the most commonly used approaches for triggering this change is community-led total sanitation (CLTS). This involves bringing together the residents of a community and, through an experienced field facilitator and interactive sessions, get them to understand the health and economic consequences of defecating outside. When this is done through continuous engagement, CLTS usually prompts the whole community to decide collectively that it is beneficial to stop open defecation and to build and use toilets. This approach is sustainable and long-lasting as the community takes ownership of the issue and works together to make the change.

In practice, however, this is never so easy. There are always people who refuse to believe in the benefits of using a toilet. Many prefer to go out in the open as their ancestors have done for centuries – a habit extremely difficult to break. To convince them otherwise the CLTS approach uses various methods such as forming nigrani samitis (watch committees) who keep track of those in a village who still defecates in the open, garlanding “offenders” and following them to open defecation sites, and processing around a village with a band announcing the names of open defecators.

All these methods have several things in common; they are non-violent, mostly persuasive in tone, and, while they have an element of naming and shaming, the methods are adopted by the community and the final decision to change is left to the individual.

But due to the urgency brought on by the ever-closer Swachh Bharat deadline, state governments across India are now trying to coerce communities to stop open defecation, by adopting methods and passing laws that are more stringent and have a top down approach that goes against the spirit of CLTS. The government of the north Indian state of Haryana recently announced that drones would be used to monitor people going out to defecate. Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, a law was passed which bars anyone not having a flush toilet in their homes from contesting in Panchayat elections. A sarpanch (village chief) in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh has gone even further and ordered that people not constructing toilets will be ineligible to access the government’s public distribution shops to get essential food items. Tragically, in the same state, a man was recently killed after he refused to construct a toilet.

While some coercive actions have been around since the beginning of the CLTS approach, the increasingly harsh nature of the methods being adopted – especially by governments – to try to change behaviours is worrying. We need to solve the problem of open defecation in India, but governments must step back and let the communities take ownership and make the change happen – even if it takes time.

The perceived Big Brother attitude that accompanies most government policies and directions carries the danger of making people hostile to safe sanitation and its benefits – worsening the problem. Lessons learned from the failures and successes of family planning and polio campaigns are worth reconsidering to avoid such a backlash, especially as the Swachh Bharat Mission moves into its most critical end phase.

By supporting non-coercive behaviour change, communication programmes, training and deploying field facilitators who can implement CLTS effectively, monitoring the use of toilets and hygiene behaviours, governments can help to make long-lasting change happen that is owned by communities.