Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It's an unprecedented plan aimed at eliminating open defecation across the country. Could it work?
Some 503,142 toilets have been installed in households across India since October, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announced Clean India Mission, a sanitation campaign that aims to eliminate open defecation by 2019.
It's an ambitious and necessary target. According to the World Health Organization, more than 620 million people—about half India's population—relieve themselves in the open, a practice with serious negative impacts on public health, safety, and the economy.
India has a lot more to overcome than just a mass installation of toilets and latrines. In a recent survey of 3,200 rural households by Delhi-based Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, half of respondents who didn't have a toilet believed that "defecating in the open is the same or better for health than using a latrine." Most people who owned a government-constructed latrine still chose to use the outdoors. Some end up using their loo for storage or extra living space.
Modi's administration announced Wednesday that sanitary inspectors will soon be going door-to-door to "check and verify the use of toilets," using tablets or phones to publish results online in "real time," according to a press release. "Earlier, the monitoring was done only about the construction of toilets, but now the actual use of toilets will be ascertained."
That's a lot of resources devoted to an approach with little in the way of precedent. Could it really work?
John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, a nonprofit that advocates for safe drinking water and sanitation, stresses there's no silver bullet when it comes to solving a sanitation crisis. "Most importantly, I think one needs to take a more holistic look at this problem," he says. "Change has to be demand-driven. People have to want to use toilets, not have them forced upon them."
Oldfield suggests that inspections might be useful in that they might pressure or even "shame" citizens into using their toilets. "It could sort of be like neighbors spying on each other to see who's defecating out in the open," he says.
Others have warned that public outreach and educational campaigns should figure much more prominently in Clean India's strategy. Only 8 percent of the $30 billion dedicated to the mission is marked for "information, education and communication."
"I would spend at least half of the money on IEC,” Santosh Mehrotra, an economics professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the Wall Street Journal.
Still, "what do we do even after we know that the toilets are not there or not used?" asks Jack Sim, president of the World Toilet Organization.*
Sim agrees that the will to change toilet habits must come from the bottom up. "I think [inspection] is a good idea if it can actually be done and monitored through community participation," he said. "Ultimately, toilets have to become a status symbol and a lifestyle choice in order to become a norm."
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the World Toilet Association, not Organization.