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Rural Sanitation in India: The Poo Party

Stanford Social Innovation Review
By Professor  

On October 2, 2014, the Indian government launched the much-hyped Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin)—or “Clean India Mission (Rural)”—an effort to attain nationwide, open defecation-free (ODF) status over five years by facilitating the installation of more than 200,000 subsidized latrines. It may seem encouraging that, by official estimates, there are already about 314 ODF Indian districts (out of total 644) in 11 states (out of 37). But an important question remains: What will it take for people to actually use government-subsidized latrines?

Answering this question means looking at the latrine infrastructure—they’re often pretty shabby, small, and largely without a stable water source. But it also means examining the behavioral norms (socio-cultural taboos handed down through generations) that deter people from the very concept of at-home latrines.

 

For example: 

  • Some consider having latrines within a home’s premises religiously “impure”—human excreta and deities cannot coexist under the same roof. The “filth,” villagers believe, tarnishes the sanctity of home, potentially inciting divine wrath instead of garnering bliss. The gruesome chore of pit cleaning aggravates risks of impurity. By the same token, at-home latrines prohibit cooking and eating under the same roof. Similarly, trash-bins are rare in rural homes. Household waste is customarily swept out into the open to keep “evil” at bay. 
  • Latrine pits are often considered the spawning ground of mosquitoes and flies, and thus homeowners fear them. 
  • Often, the lack of a sustainable water supply, even if there is a latrine, necessitates open defecation in the vicinity of water sources (wells, streams, ponds, tanks, and so on), thus exacerbating risks of health hazards owing to water contamination. 
  • Some villagers regard open defecation as an opportunity for social networking, where they can meet others in nearby fields to keep up on gossip.
  • Working men and women sometimes view open defecation as a convenience. They can leave home very early in the morning and go to the fields, where they defecate as needed. To them, latrine-time interferes with valuable daylight working hours. 
  • Some studies have even indicated that open defecation is a demonstration of masculinity, strength, and pride).

 

Rural societies in some parts of the country—out of dire need and desperation—have begun crafting social campaigns to transform these kinds of behavioral norms.

A “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign in Haryana and Punjab states is one example. Launched in 2005 by the state governments, the campaign made great use of social and public media to prompt families with marriage-age girls to demand that potential suitors’ families install an at-home latrine as a pre-requisite to marriage. As of August 2017, the effort had led to a 15 percent rise in family investment in at-home latrines and has had four times the impact in areas where there are fewer potential brides. Private sanitation coverage in Haryana has risen by as much as 21 percent for households having marriage-age boys, according to a report in the Journal of Development Economics.

 

Meanwhile, nationwide surveys reveal that women are more interested in having at-home latrines than men. For millions of women, having a latrine at home literally stands between dignity and shame, between safety and abuse, between acquiring a urinary tract infection and health (including the health of their children). Women’s collectives in some districts have already taken the matter into their own hands and built their own latrines (popularly known as izzat ghar, or “room of dignity”). Praiseworthy district administrations are also lending a hand by training women with masonry skills or putting them in touch with local or regional self-help groups. In some central Indian districts such as the state of Jharkhand, where open defecation is most common, women have initiated a drive to dig latrine pits called gadda khodo abhiyaan. The effort is facilitated by district administration and calls for each house in a given community to contribute a digger to build a “leach pit”—a type of latrine that doesn’t require a sewage pipe connection and soaks waste water in situ. It also reduces the hassle of transporting raw materials in difficult terrain.

A recent youth-driven social media campaign, “Take Poo to the Loo,” is spreading awareness about open defecation and destigmatizing latrines. The campaign developed following a UNICEF’s social awareness drive called “The Poo Party,” in which Mr. Poo (an animated fecal mascot) aimed to sensitize citizens to the multidimensional health aspects of open defecation (such as diarrhea and dysentery). “Take Poo to the Loo” features a music video written and composed by the famous Indo-Jazz composer Shrikanth Sriram, and famous Indian bands like Indian Ocean and Raghu Dixit have also come out in its support. Quirky, fun, and informative, this campaign song aims to bring youth to the forefront of the movement against open defecation. Making imaginative use of “toilet sounds,” it reminds people that, if left unaddressed, open defecation may encroach on personal space and make existence unbearable. Students of prestigious Indian academic institutions, including Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, have begun using the message to help raise awareness about the health and environmental ramifications of open defecation. 

Change from within

Transforming the behavioral norms of rural populations is a particularly challenging task, and it will only work if rural communities change from within. One approach, as suggested by a recent World Bank study, may be revitalizing the community-led total sanitation (CLTS) program, which is underpinned by three “Ds” (condensed down from five):

 

1. Depict: Use media to show the dignity and self-esteem of households with at-home latrine facilities, and the part latrines can play in elevating cultural enrichment and social standing. Village administrations might even create provisions to officially reward “progressive” households and motivate others to follow their lead.
    
2. Demonstrate: Organize live demonstrations of toilet designs to show how easy they are to operate and maintain.
    
3. Divulge: Make people aware of the potentially negative health outcomes of open defecation and the low cost of constructing latrines at home by conducting workshops and audio-visual training sessions at the elementary school level, and finding ways to articulate social messages via village songs, plays, and folk art, which often connect better than speeches by government officials.