Swachh Bharat lessons from Bangladesh

Gyanendra Keshri, Executive Editor, INCLUSION

Almost 53 per cent Indian households have no toilet facility and defecate in the open.

More than half of India’s 1.25 billion people defecate in the open and more than half of the people in the world who defecate in the open live in India.

Open defecation has serious health, economic and social implications. It releases germs that contaminates ground water and spreads life-threatening diseases like diarrhea, cholera and typhoid that every year kills thousands of people, mostly children. It stunts physical growth, limits adult economic productivity and raises healthcare costs. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report, an average of Rs 6,500 per person was lost in India due to lack of cleanliness and hygiene. Hundreds of women are being raped and subject to sexual assault due to open defecation.

Recognising the urgency of this threat Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched an initiative called Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan with an objective to make Indian free of open defecation and rubbish-free by 2019.

The challenge is enormous. But several countries, including even the poorer countries, have done it successfully and India must do it also. It’s not a rocket science and there is no point in reinventing the wheels. What can Indian learn from the experience of other countries? Here I am not going to talk about the high-income countries that have eliminated open defecation. One interesting example could be Bangladesh. Less than 3 per cent of Bangladesh people defecate in the open, while the proportion in India is 53 per cent. For Pakistan it is 23 per cent and China 1 per cent.

One argument for the large number of open defection in India is that the majority of people can’t afford latrines because they are poor. But is it really linked to the economic situation of the country? Had it been so, the situation in Bangladesh would have been much worse than India.

The per capita income of Bangladesh was $829 in 2013, while India’s per capita income stood at $1,499, according to the World Bank data. This means average Indian is almost twice as rich as average Bangladeshi. Another argument is that it’s a cultural problem. But Indians and Bangladeshis are not culturally very different. Then what explains the Bangladesh’s success in curbing open defecation?

It can be partly explained when we take into account the basic approach to latrine. In India most people who defecate in the open see latrine as a means of luxury. Either they want some standard latrine or prefer defecating in the open. The simple latrines that have been used to eliminate open defecation in Bangladesh cost around Rs 2,500, at purchasing power parity. Compare it with India. The Indian government had been providing Rs 10,000 subsidy for building latrine. Under various latrine building programmes, the central government has spent over Rs 150 billion since 2001 to build 93.5 million latrines. Under the new initiative Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan the subsidy for the construction of latrine has been doubled.

In fact the pour-flush compost latrine that have been used to tackle the problems of open defecation in the countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam was invented in India by Bindeshwar Pathak-led sanitation charity Sulabh International. The technology is simple and cheap. Two pits are created for the latrine facility. When one pit is filled, it is covered and the other pit is used. In nearly two years the waste in the covered pit dries up, ridding itself of pathogens and ready for use as fertiliser. Such latrines use much less water when compared with the conventional toilets. It requires just 1.5 to 2 litres of water to flush, compared to 12 to 15 litres that modern toilets use per flush. Moreover, the twin-pit latrines don’t require attachment to underground sewer lines, which in anyway is nonexistent in the villages.

Behavioural change is another big challenge. Just building toilets won’t solve the problems. The focus should also be on promoting the use of latrines. We often see people urinating outside the public urinal facilities. The reasons are many. One could be poor design and cleanliness of the facilities. It is also a behavioural issue. Open defecation is very common, even in households with access to a latrine. Therefore and extensive awareness campaign is required to change this behavioural problem and make sure that people ask for the facilities and see it as a basic day-to-day necessity.

It’s not mere a supply side issue. Latrine construction is not enough to eliminate open defecation. It should be demand led. People should come out, demand for it, and use it wherever possible.

(Gyanendra Keshri can be reached at gyanendra@skoch.in)

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