Review: Where India Goes by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears
A well-researched book points out that Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress unless the cultural sociology of open defecation is addressedUpdated: Nov 10, 2017 17:04 IST
Amidst the Swachh Bharat hype of ridding the country of the scourge of open defecation, the ground reality of transformation remains shrouded in statistics. The notion that it is the lack of toilets that forces people to shame themselves in public has not stood the test of time considering the toilet-building programme began over four decades ago. Despite claims to the contrary, open defecation is declining very slowly. The massive latrine-building programme needs to flush away the notion that a toilet built ensures its usage.
Why does access to toilets not inspire people to avoid defecating in the open? Is the State’s idea of a toilet different from the peoples’ perception of sanitation? Are social and cultural notions so deeply entrenched that the masses fail to draw a distinction between purity and pollution? Why does sanitation prejudice run so deep in the Indian psyche that most people belittle any attempt by the State to correct the ‘dirty picture’?
In delving into the subject, Where India Goes comes up with new insights on why the toilet has remained an incomplete solution to poor sanitation. Apparently, it does not relate to greater poverty or less education. If that were the case, neighbouring Bangladesh would have been eons away from achieving total sanitation. Instead, our poverty-stricken neighbour is close to attaining total sanitation coverage. India tops the global open defecation ranking and continues to be a country where people walk a short distance away from home to squat and relieve themselves.
Clearly, the toilet alone is not the solution. If it were, many people who could afford it would have built one and those who already owned one would have used it. It seems our socially-iniquitous society does not appreciate the subsidized uniform design of toilets and is also repelled by the idea of emptying latrine pits. Such behaviour presents the real challenge that policymakers have so far continued to ignore. If this hadn’t been the case, the current pace of building ‘a toilet a second’ would have attached greater significance to addressing the ecosystem of behavioural change. Ironically, less than 1 per cent of the current total budget for toilet construction has been set aside for this.
Researchers Diane Coffey and Dean Spears have written a book that is important, timely, and easy to read. It argues that caste is the biggest stumbling block to overcoming open defecation. Drawing heavily on field studies and data analysis, the authors contend that the power of the state over open defecation is limited because it not only lacks the human resources needed for behavioural change but also because the social forces against it are strong. The state has not yet learnt how to seek collective action from a fragmented society.
There is no easy solution in sight. The University of Texas researchers working under the aegis of non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics have located the pieces that need to be put together to solve the sanitation puzzle. To begin with, it would make sense for the government to show, on its website, the number of actual toilet users against the numbers of toilets built. Such a shift will usher a sense of accountability, and a tool for assessing change and measuring impact. This is because the goal is to eradicate open defecation with toilets as the brick-mortar means of achieving it.
Having missed the deadline to eradicate open defecation a few times, there is little to counter Coffey and Spears’ prediction that this will be repeated. The government should not shy away from accepting that its drive has had a limited impact because it hasn’t yet drawn up plans to find out why affordable toilets are being rejected. This book shows that creating options in toilet design to accommodate peoples’ beliefs, including the convenience of mechanical emptying of pits, should be taken up in earnest. Unless the targeted approach is replaced with an action and research initiative, location-specific challenges will continue to limit impact.
Where India Goes is a timely reminder on what has not worked, and offers a list of actions that could spur change. This is a book for planners, who are guided by their political masters to meet targets, but are forced to hit the ground running in their attempt to achieve over-ambitious goals. Without addressing the cultural sociology of open defecation, the political rhetoric of Swachh Bharat will remain a work in progress. A critical policy shift cannot be left to the politics of toilet building alone.
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.