Excerpts from the paper, “Understanding open defecation in rural India: Untouchability, pollution, and latrine pits”, by Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Dean Spears, Nikhil Srivastav, and Sangita Vyas, published by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, and based on interviews and survey of 3,500 households in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu:
India’s open defecation rates are indeed surprising: despite rapid economic growth, improving literacy rates, and widespread access to improved water sources, the 2011 Census found that 70% of rural households do not have a toilet or latrine. In rural sub- Saharan Africa, where people are, on average, poorer, less educated, and less likely to have access to an improved water source than people in rural India, only about 35% of people defecate in the open without a toilet or latrine. In rural Bangladesh, only 5% of people defecate in the open. In rural China, 2% of people defecate in the open.
The puzzle of why India has such anamolously high rates of open defecation is an important one because poor sanitation is widely recognized as a cause of poor health, especially in places with high population density. Open defecation spreads bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections including diarrhea, polio, cholera and hookworm and is an important cause of child stunting and infant death.
Widespread open defecation in rural India is not attributable to relative material or educational deprivation, but rather to beliefs, values, and norms about purity, pollution, caste, and untouchability that cause people to reject affordable latrines. Many people consider having and using an affordable pit latrine ritually impure and polluting. Open defecation, in contrast, is seen as promoting purity and strength, particularly by men, who typically decide how money is spent in rural households. Perhaps the most important barrier to the adoption of affordable latrines in rural India is the unique history of untouchability and its continuing practice.
Affordable latrines, such as those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and subsidized by the Indian government, have pits that need to be emptied manually. Rural people equate manual pit emptying with manual scavenging and other degrading forms labour traditionally done by dalits. Because of this, non-dalits refuse to empty their own latrine pits. Dalits, who were traditionally compelled by violence and poverty to do similar work, increasingly seek alternatives to the kinds of physically and ritually dirty jobs that have been used, for generations, to justify their oppression, exclusion, and humiliation.
India’s high rates of open defecation are also surprising in light of its literacy statistics. Women’s literacy in India is similar to women’s literacy in other parts of South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, and that men’s literacy is higher in India than in these other places. Access to an improved water source is often assumed to be related to latrine use. Yet, among these regions and countries, access to improved drinking water is high in rural India; more than 90% of rural Indians have access to improved drinking water. One more piece of evidence that lack of water is not to blame for India’s open defecation rates is the fact that many households that have piped water nevertheless defecate in the open. Almost half of rural households with piped water defecate in the open.
What, then, can explain the difference? What sorts of latrines allow poor households in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of South Asia to avoid open defecation? Because constructing sewers and sewage treatment facilities in rural areas is very costly, many rural households in other developing countries build and use simple, inexpensive pit latrines that contain feces underground. The WHO guidelines recommend using an underground soak pit with a volume of around 60 cubic feet. A latrine pit of this size is expected to fill up after approximately five years if used daily by two adults and four children (WHO, 1996). When the pit fills up, households must either construct a new pit or empty the old one. The Indian government endorses WHO-recommended pit latrines for use in rural India. The latrines built under the Total Sanitation Campaign, the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, and the Swacch Bharat Mission are pit latrines.
The relative absence of inexpensive pit latrines from Indian villages suggests a puzzle: why do so many people in rural India defecate in the open, rather than adopt the affordable latrines that have played a major role in eliminating open defecation and improving health in other developing countries? Two-thirds of interviews were carried out in households in which at least one member had switched from open defecation to regular latrine use in the 10 years prior to the survey. One third of the interviews were carried out in households in which everyone defecates in the open. The interviews focused on understanding why a few households choose to own and use a latrine and most others do not.
The affordable latrines used in other developing countries are not only seen as physically dirty, but also ritually polluting. Further, the continuing practice and renegotiation of untouchability in Indian villages means that emptying a latrine pit, or getting it emptied by a dalit, is subjectively impossible in the first case, and a fraught undertaking in the second. In contrast, open defecation is not only socially acceptable, it is seen as a wholesome activity that promotes strength and health. The kind of latrines that are built in rural India, and the people who are most likely to use them, reinforce open defecation among the many poor.
Some of the people interviewed see latrines as polluting in a ritual sense, no matter how physically clean they are kept. One such young man, a brahmin from Haryana, misappropriates the germ theory of disease in explaining why he would not want to have a latrine at home:
“If a latrine is in the house, there will be bad smells, germs will grow. Latrines in the house are like…hell. The environment becomes completely polluted. There is no benefit of lighting [religious candles and lamps], no benefit at all.”
When he refers to “bad smells”, this young man is referring at least as much to ritual distaste as to physical distaste; latrines in rural India presumably smell no worse, on average, than in the many other countries where they are used. Instead, respondents frequently invoked “bad smells” as an ostensibly secular, but nevertheless unmistakable, reference to ritual pollution. As this quotation illustrates, distaste for latrines has to do with the importance of maintaining purity in the home.
When people talk about defecating in the open, they stress that it is good to walk far from home before defecating. Those households that build latrines often build them far from the house. A middle aged Gujarati man from a mid-ranking Hindu caste explains:
“[A latrine] should be 25-30 feet away from the kitchen. In cities, [people] eat and shit in the same place. In our village, people don’t live like that, we keep these things separate, and that’s a good thing. It’s filthy, no?”
At first, villagers’ apparent concern for the presence of feces in the home or near the kitchen seems confusing in light of fact that we observe many households in which the elderly, the handicapped, and small children defecate on the ground within the home or the compound. These feces are later disposed of outside, often by women.
Although some villagers, particularly upper caste Hindus, find latrines of any sort distasteful, most people feel that expensive latrines with large pits or cemented underground tanks are not polluting, but rather are a natural addition to a wealthy person’s home. In contrast, latrines with smaller soak pits, such as those provided by the government, are almost uniformly viewed with disdain. Almost all of the households interviewed had some exposure to affordable pit latrines because of the government’s long-running latrine construction programs.
Of the 78 Indian families interviewed in the formal qualitative data set, 18, or about a quarter of them, had been recipients of government latrines, although of these only 8 families had at least one member who was using the government latrine regularly. Others had seen or heard about government latrines from relatives and neighbours. One respondent had worked as a mason constructing government latrines.
The latrines that are promoted and built by the Indian government are expensive by the standards of other developing countries. While the Swacch Bharat Mission subsidizes latrines at Rs 12,000, a Bangladeshi pit latrine costs only about Rs 3000. Despite this, people refer to Indian government latrines as “temporary, “fake,” or “kaccha.” Very often, people who receive government latrines do not use them for defecation at all; they may repurpose the materials or use the latrine superstructure to bathe or wash clothes.
In addition to believing that using a government latrine will pollute their homes, people reject these latrines because of concerns about pit emptying. The size of pits recommended by the WHO, those recommended by the Indian government in its 2012 guidelines, and the median pit size among latrines owned by households interviewed for the survey. In the survey, among latrines that were being used by at least one member of the household, fewer than 4% had pits that were 60 cubic feet or less. The median pit size of a latrine that is being used by at least one household member is 250 cubic feet.
Villagers’ demand for large latrine pits means that the cost of a privately constructed latrine in rural India is much higher than the cost of a latrine in other developing countries. Men who answered the survey reported that a minimally acceptable latrine costs, on average, Rs. 21,000. This “minimally acceptable” latrine is not the one to which most people in rural India aspire. Most people want pits that are even larger than 250 cubic feet.
On the very small number of occasions that we did encounter privately constructed latrines with pits similar to those recommended by the government or the WHO, they were built by poor families with a disabled member or by Muslim households. Hindus who owned pit latrines viewed them as shameful objects. On one occasion, an upper caste Hindu household would not admit that the simple latrine they had built for their son, who had polio and could not walk, was indeed a latrine. On another occasion, an elderly Hindu man refused to show us his latrine; later, when he was no longer present, his grandson explained that he was ashamed of how simple it was. In fact, it was a serviceable and hygienic latrine that met WHO and government standards.
Most people wrongly believe that government-provided soak pits will fill up in a matter of months, rather than years, and will require frequent emptying. The Indian government and the WHO recommend that a pit be left unused for six months to decompose. Decomposed feces are safer to handle than fresh sludge: they do not transmit bacterial and viral infections. Hiring someone to empty a decomposed pit is not considered manual scavenging under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013. The need to allow pits to decompose before emptying means that each latrine needs two pits. If pits are built near to each other, households can alternate use of the two pits, but continue to use the same superstructure.
Although, on paper, the Indian government claims to have been promoting twin-pit systems for decades, very few people in villages use this technology. Only 2.5% of in-use latrines observed in the survey had two pits.
Why do rural Indians perceive manual pit emptying to be an insurmountable problem, when it is done as a matter of course in other countries? The answer, in a word, is untouchability. Due to the history and continuing practice of untouchability in villages, manual pit emptying presents special challenges in rural India that are not present in other societies. In rural India, dalits have traditionally been compelled to do dirty, degrading tasks for higher caste households, often in exchange for very little compensation.
Manually cleaning human feces is considered to be the most degrading of these tasks; this is assigned to the lowest among dalit castes. For generations, and still today, the fact that dalits perform “dirty” work has been used as evidence of their permanent ritual pollution, and to justify excluding them from schools, public water sources, and more dignified employment. Along with economic exploitation and social exclusion, dalits have often suffered humiliation and violence at the hands of their upper caste neighbours.
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