open defecation
A community toilet block, built by Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, stands in Hirmtala village, Haryana | Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan | Bloomberg
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Last month, two children – one ten years old, one twelve years old – were killed in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The children were Dalits. The killers, journalists report, belong to a higher-ranking caste. The village was officially open-defecation free, according to the declarations of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).

The children were killed, reports hold, because they defecated in the open.

Like many families in rural north India, their family did not have a working latrine, according to their father. For many rural Indians, this situation has changed recently. Over the past few years, the government has reportedly built hundreds of millions of latrines. But this father tells reporters that he did not receive one from the local authorities.

Other families in rural India told different stories when our team interviewed thousands of them in 2014 and again in 2018 (Gupta et al. 2019). Sometimes, we heard from older adults, who were no longer able to go out into the fields, that they were grateful for a latrine. Other times, families were unhappy that they had been ordered by local officials to build a latrine when the Rs. 12,000 subsidy would only cover a small portion of the cost. Many times, people were indifferent – perhaps a contractor had built a latrine near their house, but they defecated in the open before, and they would defecate in the open now.

And, in an important minority of cases, people reported humiliation, anger, or fear in response to coercion and threats. “Build a latrine or lose your rations.” “Build a latrine or your children will be kicked out of school.” “Pull your ears, do sit-ups, and ask for forgiveness for defecating in the open.” Statistics show, and nobody would doubt, that Dalits and Adivasis were more likely to report these experiences with the SBM.

Also read: Roshni, the Shivpuri Dalit girl killed for ‘open defecation’, wanted to become a doctor

It is, unfortunately, true that higher-caste people in the rural parts of India, where open defecation is common, harmed, threatened, and killed Dalits before the SBM. So, there is an important sense in which this crime may have happened anyway. No evidence can settle whether a complex, multi-faced national programme was a cause of such a crime. Moreover, of course, many who worked for a Swacch Bharat (clean India) are dismayed by this killing.

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But SBM used the social inequality of Indian villages and exploited the thin boundary between social authority and the rural State. In many places, coordinators recruited local elites to use social norms to enforce rapid change – and sometimes actively encouraged swacchgarhis (official volunteers organised under the programme) and nigrani samitis (community organisations that monitor open defecation) to humiliate and harass the poor and marginalised as they went to defecate in the early morning.

Rural north India is not open-defecation free. It was not a realistic goal for a five-year programme. What are the consequences of a popular political leader charging the country to achieve an utterly unachievable timeline?

It depends. It is easy to imagine the ends justifying the means. No doubt, accelerating the decline of open defecation in rural India is a worthy goal. Open defecation kills children (Geruso and Spears 2018), and stunts the physical and cognitive development of those who survive (Spears 2018, Spears 2012). As watchers of the SBM, we have often heard people say that an inspirational goal could motivate the country to achieve a remarkable outcome. If announcing a target and building toilets so quickly could accelerate the decline of open defecation without negative consequences, then doing so would indeed have been a good idea.

Also read: The ‘c’ in Swachh Bharat is caste and Modi needs to address it

But utterly implausible targets from powerful political leaders are also known to have other effects.

One other effect is to create incentives to distort the information that the State uses to govern, and to inform the claims that it makes to its citizens. Anybody who wants to can drive an hour from Bhopal into Madhya Pradesh and find open defecation. But most observers will simply consult official statistics. These report success – in parliamentary questions last December, the government reported that Madhya Pradesh is 100% open-defecation free.

The hollowing of official statistical credibility in India has not been limited to sanitation. The government continues to insist, for example, that air pollution is not a cause of mortality. Economic experts were reportedly not consulted about demonetisation. And important economic surveys have simply stopped being collected and released.

The other foreseeable consequence of an extreme goal is to legitimise extreme methods. And in a country in which nearly a third of households admit to practicing untouchability (Thorat and Joshi 2015), it is not a surprise that when local government officials sanctioned coercion and intimidation as means of achieving Swacch Bharat, the consequences would fall most heavily on the already disadvantaged.

Our statistics show that the decline in open defecation indeed accelerated under the SBM. But, strikingly, the percentage of rural latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change in the states that we surveyed (Rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) between 2014 and 2018. Statistically, the decline in open defecation was entirely due to changes in latrine ownership.

What also has not changed is that untouchability and social inequality are important parts of why open defecation continues. The SBM could have announced an ambitious goal to spend five years addressing these interconnected challenges together. That missed opportunity is one of the most important costs.

Also read: This Delhi village was declared open defecation-free by its BJP MP in 2018. Except it isn’t

Diane Coffey is Executive Director, RICE, and Assistant Professor of sociology & population research at the University of Texas at Austin. Views are personal.

Dean Spears is Executive Director, RICE, and Assistant Professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin. Views are personal.

This article was first published on Ideas for India (I4I).

Following is the official response by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, to the article:

“The authors Diane Coffey and Dean Spears (Executive Directors, r.i.c.e.) have attempted similar stories multiple times, making misleading and outrageous statements with reference to the Swachh Bharat Mission based on incomplete, flawed, incorrect and – more often than not – non-existent data.

It may be noted that over the past 70 years, since Indian Independence, sanitation levels have been more or less stagnant across rural India, adversely impacting the life conditions of our people. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to take on the challenge of open defecation head on and gave the programme the highest level of political leadership,  the Swachh Bharat Mission became a people’s movement and the rural sanitation situation across the country was successfully turned around in a period of five years. Unfortunately, these perennial critics have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge these gains and, true to their habit of perpetuating theoretical critique, have always looked at the glass not just half, but fully empty. They have been trying to raise false doubts instead of providing solutions, and accepting, as the world has done, the overall success of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation would like to place on record its response to the claims made in the piece about the progress made under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) and its position with respect to the lack of academic integrity shown  by the authors in their attempt to mislead readers with biased and baseless statements.

On independent surveys

The r.i.c.e. piece outrightly dismisses the results of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) based on the “thousands” of households the team surveyed to track changes between 2014 and 2018. The facts are that their statistically insignificant and non-representative study surveyed a sample of merely 1,558 households in 120 villages. Further, the study was rife with gaps in methodology and bias of the surveyors, which is evident in the questionnaire design itself. These gaps have been highlighted by this Department in detail through a media statement published on the PIB website, dated 9 January 2019.

The r.i.c.e. piece deliberately ignores the nationwide 90,240 household survey, the National Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2018-19, conducted across over 6,000 villages, since that would not serve their explicitly biased conclusions. It is relevant to mention here, given the questions raised about the credibility of progress figures, that the methodology and processes of NARSS have been developed and approved by an empowered and independent Expert Working Group (EWG) comprising leading experts on statistics and sanitation which include Prof Amitabh Kundu, Dr N.C. Saxena, World Bank, UNICEF, BMGF, Water Aid India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), among others.

The NARSS 2018-19 is the largest and most representative independent sanitation survey in the country to date. The survey found toilet usage in rural India to be 96.5%. Two more independent surveys conducted in the past by the Quality Council of India in 2017, and National Sample Survey Organization in 2016, also found the usage of rural toilets to be 91% and 95% respectively.

On the “subsidy” Rs 12,000 not being enough

This shows the deliberate misunderstanding of the programme by the authors. The Rs 12,000 given to the eligible households is not a “subsidy”, but an incentive. Households are encouraged to invest, as is comfortable and convenient for them, for building the toilets of their choice. Having said that, the incentive amount is enough for building a twin pit toilet, the most suitable toilet technology for large parts of rural India. Suffice it to say that they make no reference of the fact that the toilet incentive given by the previous government was significantly less than that given under the SBM.

On targets and the construction of toilets leading to negative consequences

The piece itself admits that  ‘no evidence can settle whether a complex, multi-faced national programme was a cause of such a crime. Moreover, of course, many who worked for a Swachh Bharat (clean India) are dismayed by this killing’, but the authors, undeterred by this lack of evidence, carry on to make irresponsible statements on the subject nonetheless.

Further, in their weak attempt to denounce the SBM, the authors conveniently overlookthe positive impact the SBM has demonstrated in the lives of people in terms of health, economics and the environment, as articulated by global agencies. Some of these are as follows:

  • In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that SBM(G) will result in averting more than 3,00,000 deaths (diarrhoea and protein-energy malnutrition) between 2014 and October 2019.
  • UNICEF’s assessment of the economic impact of the SBM estimated that in an ODF village in India, each family saves up to Rs 50,000 per year on account of avoided medical costs, time savings which can be used more productively, and lives saved.
  • UNICEF’s assessment of SBM on Faecal Contamination of Water, Soil, and Food found that ODF villages are 11.25 times less likely to have their groundwater sources contaminated, and 12.7 times less from contaminants traceable to humans alone.

Onfield officials being directed to “humiliate and harass”

The SBM(G) recognises the influential role of the community itself to enhance positive behaviour change communication. However, the accusation that swachhagrahis (village volunteers) and nigrani samitis (community groups for monitoring) are actively encouraged ‘to humiliate and harass the poor and marginalised’ only confirms the baseless and evidence-less agenda of the authors.

The Swachh Bharat Mission strongly supports positive behaviour change and the Department takes note of any coercion in implementation very seriously. The article fails to distinguish between coercion and affirmative community action, such as that led by local Nigrani Samitis, or local GP, which reflects the limited understanding of the community approach to sanitation among the authors.

As opposed to the negative tone of the r.i.c.e. piece, the Community Approach to Sanitation, employed by the SBM(G), actually brings all sections of the community together in their effort to eliminate open defecation and practice safe sanitation.

Further, all guidelines and directions of the SBM(G) promote positive behaviour change communication. In 2019, Dr Cass Sunstein, a Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard who specialises in the ‘nudge theory’, cited the Swachh Bharat Mission as an example for how positive behaviour change can catalyse structural reform. A recent article by Prof Bibek Debroy, as well, confirms the impactful yet sustainable policy outcomes by applying behavioural tools in mission like ‘Swachh Bharat’.

Given the glaring gaps in the aforementioned piece, the Department would like to stress that reports based on such erroneous, inconsistent and biased studies are an attempt to mislead readers.

The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation urges all media houses to practice caution when citing these authors. It is clear that the authors and the study hold a prejudiced and biased perspective on what is widely acknowledged to be a successful Mission and the largest behaviour change programme in the world – reaffirmed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which honoured the Prime Minister with the Global Goalkeeper Award this year for the Swachh Bharat Mission.”

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16 Comments Share Your Views


  1. The SBM, of late, has/had become more of a political publicity than reality. it has been plagued by political interferance, currupt practices and casteism all sheilded appropriately by the muscle power of the high cast peoploe.

  2. Yesterday, two foreigners were caught spying, when people were going about their morning business. They were caught and thoroughly thrashed. When questioned, the culprits confessed to their voyeurism. It seems they get high on such acts of defecation. The people also earlier reported seeing them around the Print office. The Indian police are investigating the connection. They have not ruled out some foreign country’s role!

  3. Who would have thought Americans like Indian s**t? Did they take samples as proof of census? Maybe, the Print helped these guys with sample collection.

  4. “What also has not changed is that untouchability and social inequality are important parts of why open defecation continues.”

    Gold. Even if the government funds building a toilet at home, some refuse to use and this author attributes it untouchability. What a lazy attempt to peddle an agenda.

  5. No data nothing. Just opinion and mentioning a few unfortunate cases of killing to prove that Swatch Bharat is a total failure. Swatch Bharat cannot be a 100% success in such a short span but that does not mean it’s a total failure. It’ll take timee to
    change attitude.

  6. Readers..
    I request you to mention the foreign authors who write positively on India, culture, development etc., from across the media. I think the ratio could be 1:1000 !!
    I have come across hardly anybody all these years.

    • OR
      Due to ‘confirmation bias’ tendency and ‘infererior complex syndrome’, do the Indian media houses pick only these foreign authors who write negatively on India?
      Shame, Shame!

      • Indians in general and especially those of the Angrezi ‘elite’ class, of which the the English media is a part, suffer from a deep inferiority complex. To the extent that foreigners who may have never visited India or just make short peripatetic trips to India are considered authoritaties on Indian society and it’s history, culture, economics, politics etc. Anything that comes from the gora is. God’s truth for them. And this is across the ideological spectrum.

  7. Its a shame that half of India was defecating in the open until now. There was not even an iota of discussion on this and SBM has brought this out of the closet. Don’t these liberals/congress ecosystem have any shame. With what face can they criticize a mission that should have been started 70 years back !!!

    • actually it was close to 70%…n there was intermittent discussion on open defecation especially since the 2013 WHO report, infact the UPA govt sanctioned a whopping Rs 2000 to each person building a toilet.
      now these authors have a problem with the govt giving them 12000.

  8. It seems the author is relieved to be India being not ‘completely open defecation free’ so that India can still be projected as poor. They can still carry on with their racist cartoons.
    What’s the problem with them?
    Why can’t they see the positive outcome of the SBM which reduced the problem significantly? or atleast people became aware of the problem?
    Would it have been the same commentary if there was a Congress government (hypothetical case of SBM by congress !!)?
    Why couldn’t the ‘enlightened/poor centric’ congress government achieve the same?
    Why do they find happiness in 0.1% or 0.01 % failure of scheme?
    So that they can write another LETTER protesting the current government?

    WHY not publish a rebuttal by ThePrint, after doing an extensive research?
    Why don’t ThePrint stop dependency on foreign authors and encourage domestic ones?

  9. Fully agree with author. defecation increased after SBM. It used to be much less under Nehruji, Indiraji, Rajivji and Soniaji. This government should immediately roll back SBM and restore normalcy.

    • As a matter of fact, it is true!! In absolute numbers of population!! 🙂 🙂 .-) … Who cares for % of population?
      1961 – 439,235,000 —- Nehruji
      1981 – 683,329,000 —- Indiraji
      1991 – 846,387,888 —– Rajivji ( slightly stretched.. acturally after his government)
      2011 – 1,210,726,932 — Soniaji

      Any guess for Rahulji?


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