The stats are out, and contrary to claims main by our honourable Prime Minister in his 2nd October address, India is not yet Open Defecation Free (ODF)
According to the SBM guidelines, a village can declare itself ODF by passing a resolution to the effect in the gram sabha. This information is then uploaded on the SBM database and the village concerned is marked as ‘declared ODF’.
For verification of the ODF declaration, the guidelines suggest that ‘at least’ two verifications be carried out. The first level of verification should be done within three months of declaration and the second level – to ensure that villages don’t fall out of the ODF status – within six months of the first verification. This is where the discrepancies start coming in.
The Real Picture
As per the data uploaded on the SBM website, only 24% of villages in India have undergone second-level verification. There are 10 states where not a single village has performed the second-level of verification.
There are even allegations that the data has been fudged and hastily uploaded on the website. All this is done so that the innumerable villages in India could be declared ODF by the 2nd October deadline, as set by the Prime Minister.
Take the case of Odisha for example. As reported by The Wire, on September 26, the number of verified ODF villages (first level) in Odisha was 23,902. After four days, on September 30, that number had increased by almost 55% to 37,008. That implies that Odisha had managed to complete first-level verification in over 13,000 villages in four days, at the rate of over 3,200 villages a day. That’s about 63% of the state’s villages verified in just 4 days!
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation conducts the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NAARS). According to the latest NAARS, which was conducted between November 2018 and February 2019, several households in villages that had been declared ODF did not have access to toilets. The study also showed how even in the villages that were declared as ODF and claimed to have toilets, most of them were unhygienic and deemed to be unusable.
Why an ODF India Remains Unachievable For Now
The issue with the aim of making India ODF lies in the objectives set in itself. Just the construction of toilets in each household does not guarantee that people will use it. The problem runs much deeper than just lack of infrastructure. It involves caste biases, gender inequality, historical beliefs and lack of awareness amongst others, all of which will have to be altered to get people to actually start using toilers.
One of the main reasons why the mission has failed is because of its staunch focus on just building toilets and using it as a barometer for sanitation. Focusing on the provision of safe sanitation, the rural arm of SBM had advocated for a low-cost, on-site sanitation technology known as the twin leach pit model for its safe and sustainable containment and management of faecal waste.
However, the rush to build toilets in households in order to meet the guidelines has led to the convenient ignorance of this important parameter. As per the latest (NARSS 2018), only 29% of households with toilets had the twin leach pit model. Instead, many households have built larger, single pit toilets, containment chambers or septic tanks, often even ignoring the recommended distance from water sources or the water table.
The issue with these toilets is that they require more water and separate external systems for removal, transportation and treatment of the excreta. The highest population that doesn’t have access to clean water is situated in India. With as many as 163 million people not having access to clean water in the country, how can we expect the toilets to function, if the water that is needed for their utility isn’t available?
Another issue with the existing toilets that have been constructed is the lack of proper water connections. The ODF sustainability guidelines as stated by the SBM mission clearly state that there should be provision for washing hands near the toilets. A ground-level study conducted by The Wire found out that toilets remain non-functional precisely because of inadequate or no water facilities.
The inevitable water crises in India will sadly ensure that an Open Defecation Free India remains unattainable. The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are linked to unsafe water and the lack of hygiene practices. With as many as 21 cities expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, more than 100 million people are believed to be impacted. Do we actually think when these regions run out of water, the little water that they have, they will be using it for sanitation?
The objective of providing safe sanitation facilities to Indians would require much more than just constructing toilets. Certainly, the initiative is a step in the right direction, and one has to start from somewhere. However for it to be a successful initiative, several government departments and the citizens themselves would have to synergize and take into account various aspects such as the resources at hand, the infrastructure available, awareness, etc. for India to be truly declared Open Defecation Free.