Make progress on Modis Swachh Bharat

Bowl by bowl - why India's toilet revolution is facing obstacles

With a budget of billions, Prime Minister Modi wanted to make India more hygienic. But the world's largest cleanliness campaign will miss its target.

The Indian government builds 62,329 new toilets every day - and has done so for more than four years. The nationwide toilet offensive is part of the “Swachh Bharat” (“Clean India”) campaign, a showcase project by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India should become cleaner and more hygienic, as he promised when he took office around five years ago. Until October 2, 2019, the 150th birthday of the independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, nobody in the huge Asian empire will have to do their business outdoors. By then there should be more than 100 million new toilets.

"I'd rather be outside"

Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, put on the “100 percent Open Defecation Free” seal of approval last November. Instead of emptying themselves along the railroad track, in the forest or in the field, the more than 200 million residents of Uttar Pradesh should now actually all use a closed toilet. The reality is different. A visit to Ahmad Nagar, a village with 10,000 inhabitants around 100 kilometers east of Delhi, suggests this. It is true that the residents of Ahmad Nagar actually witnessed hectic construction work in their forecourts and backyards, as the municipal administration started building around 150 toilet houses with state money. This is also the case with the family of farm workers Inder Pal.

He asks the journalist to come to his farm. Four by five meters in size, surrounded by a mud wall, a low wooden door reveals a shelter with a corrugated iron roof. The few clothes hang on hooks on the walls. There are straw mats on the floor. The farm worker lives here with his wife, two daughters, a grandchild, mother-in-law, four cows and small cattle. In 2017 the Pals received a toilet house with the number 56 869.

The family has never used the little concrete house with a green door, like an oversized building block, or, to put it more precisely, not in the sense intended by the government. It needs it as a store for cow dung, the fuel with which the stove is fired. From the floor to the corrugated iron roof, neatly piled up, dozens of cake-sized flatbreads.

"This toilet is no good," explains Inder Pal. He uses a metal rod to balance a manhole cover next to the toilet and points to the brick-clad drain. A test showed that liquid would seep into the floor and into the walls of your house if you were to use the toilet. "A botch!" Scolds Inder Pal. It soon becomes clear that structural inadequacies only partially explain why the landlord prefers to march on the field. “I breathe fresh air there. And anyway: going to the toilet outside isn't a bad thing, on the contrary, it's healthy. "

After all, the family man admits that walking into the bushes and into the sugar cane fields is a burden for the women. “There are guys in the village who want to watch us do it,” the younger daughter intervenes. Before daybreak, the female members of the Pal family, together with the other village women, set out for a sugar cane field. Each with a PET bottle full of water for cleaning. In winter it is bitterly cold, during the monsoons they sink ankle-deep in the mud and faeces. The procedure is repeated in the evening before going to bed.

Embellished reality

The behavior of the Pal family seems to be widespread in India, especially in rural areas, where around two thirds of the population live. According to a study by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (Rice), the rate of open defecation in the rural regions of Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh fell from 70 to 44 percent between 2014 and 2018. Amazingly, however, every fourth toilet owner refrains from going to his house on a regular basis. Despite the multi-million dollar campaign, this proportion has remained the same over the past four years, according to the study.

Delhi reacted indignantly to the report of the renowned institute. Methodological inadequacies were asserted, a reply was even requested and reference was made to their own surveys, which are supposed to prove a toilet usage rate of over 90 percent. Indian media recently reported, however, that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, noticed on a tour of randomly selected villages that the balance was not looking so rosy and that there were considerable discrepancies between the target and the actual situation in terms of toilet use give. In some places the funds for the program trickled into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats.

Not in your own four walls

How can it be explained that millions of toilets are simply not used or misused? According to the institute's authors, the key to understanding lies in the Hindu faith and caste system. Only Dalits are allowed to come into contact with excrement and other things considered unclean. Many Hindus feel that cleaning a toilet themselves is unreasonable. For some, the problem is not bacteria or stench, but the fear of contamination in the figurative sense from a toilet in the house.

In numerous villages, the researchers came across residents who completely refused to have a toilet built in their own four walls. The Modi government, eager to speed up sanitation at record speed, has installed millions of toilet bowls. On the other hand, educational work was neglected. Health experts have long pointed out that such deeply rooted behavior cannot be changed in a term of office of around five years - even if this aspect had been given sufficient attention.