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Open Defecation Free

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: Can India Become Open Defecation Free By 2019?

Nearly 4 crore household toilets have been built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but it remains to be seen how the rest of the campaign handles the combined issues of sanitation, piped water supply and drainage in working towards declaring the country ODF

  • India's sanitation coverage has increased by 22 per cent since 2014
  • Only 3 states in India are ODF at present
  • More than 4,000 villages along Ganga have become ODF

In October 2014, when the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched amid much fanfare and speculation, the call to rid India of open defecation gained a resonance of approval from the nation. India, which had sanitation coverage of mere 41.92 per cent in 2014 has increased its coverage to 63.94 per cent, and this improvement is being viewed as a major success of the campaign. More than 3.5 crore toilets have been built under the mission in two years compared 83 lakh toilets built in 10 years between 2001 and 2011 under the Total Sanitation Campaign, as per the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Not only is it a sharp increase in the number of toilets built under any national sanitation programme, but the pace of constructing toilets under Swachh Bharat has been speedier as well. Nearing three years of completion, the campaign has now also laid its focus on the other aspects of sanitation such as behavioural change, piped water supply to toilets and drainage.

Much of the rural population is used to defecating in the open. They have done so for generations. Changing age old behaviour can only be achieved when people have access to functional toilets with water supply and proper drainage systems. Without these two, a toilet becomes non-functional, forcing people to go back to the same habit, the changing of which was the goal in the first place, said Beswada Wilson, social activist.

Open Defecation: The Challenges

India’s sanitation coverage has increased to 63.96 per cent from 41.92 per cent in 2014. Over 1,93,151 of India’s 640,867 villages have been declared open defecation free (ODF), though a lot more needs to be done if the goal of declaring the whole country ODF by October 2019 is to be touched. 137 districts all across India have become ODF till now. In terms of states though, only the three states of Sikkim, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh remain completely ODF, despite the campaign nearing three years of completion. Haryana, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Punjab are slated to become ODF soon. The building of more than 3.5 crore toilets is however, a big achievement, especially considering the slow progress toilet building had seen under previous sanitation campaigns. The challenges for the campaign will be to build toilets which are women and physically disabled friendly and have continuous piped water supply. Out of 5,169 villages near the Ganga, 4,085 have been declared as ODF.

Nearly 3.5 crore toilets have been built in the last three years

Nearly 3.5 crore toilets have been built in the last three years

The technology implemented to build the toilets in rural areas is often not women or physically disabled friendly, which alienates a section of the population. The lack of technology in building toilets is a key concern for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. On travelling to many parts of India, we observed that many of these toilets do not have proper water supply, lighting, ventilation and liquid waste management system. Instead of chasing numbers, the focus should be on building quality toilets for people to use, said Sushmita Sengupta, Deputy Programme Manager, Centre for Science and Environment.

Challenge #1: Piped Water Supply

Water supply remains a critical area even under the Swachh Bharat Mission. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has done well to ensure that 93.9 per cent of rural households with toilets have access to piped water supply. In urban areas, 99 per cent of household toilets have access to piped water supply. The figures are the best ever for India in terms of piped water supply to toilets and show that supply of piped water is also a priority under the mission. But it needs to be ensured that the piped water supply is continuous and is also available for the rest of the toilets which will be built. The mission needs to take into the account the problem faced by drought hit areas which often run out of piped water supply during summers. Ensuring behavioural change with regard to using water for sanitation purposes among toilet users, especially in drought hit areas, will be a challenge for the Abhiyan.

Piped water supply is one of the essentials of having a sound sanitation system. But laying of pipes for water supply is a huge challenge in urban India. It becomes even more challenging to draw plans and restructure existing water pipelines in urban areas due to involvement of various agencies like civic bodies and urban local bodies. There is often non-cooperation at various levels, resulting in delays in implementation of plans. This leads to a big gap between the number of toilets constructed and toilets with piped water supply, said Dr. Suresh Rohilla, Centre for Science and Environment.

Challenge #2: The Drainage Problem

Between 2012 and 2016, there has been a 9 per cent decrease in the number of rural household toilets without a proper drainage system. It seems a decent percentage of decrease. In rural areas, the toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan release the faecal sludge into properly constructed pits in the ground. Drainage is a more severe problem in urban areas as many drainage systems in urban India are old constructions which often lead faecal sludge directly to water bodies, resulting in environmental pollution. Absence of proper drainage means that faecal waste accumulates near the toilet area, resulting in health hazards. Laying of new and better drainage systems is a responsibility of the urban civic bodies and they often find it difficult to restructure existing drainage systems.

In the first three years of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the issues of drainage were not even touched upon by authorities, who were only looking at completing targets. Many of the toilets built under the mission had drainage systems which carried sewage directly to rivers. In the remaining two years of the mission, the government should restructure drainage systems so that the waste is properly channeled and treated, said Jeroo Master, Field Officer, UNICEF India.


Do these figures indicate failure of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? The Union Government still has more than 2 years to reach the goal of eradicating open defecation by 2019. Since the launch of the mission, many experts have opined that merely building toilets will not result in eradication of open defecation. Piped water supply, adequate drainage, disposal of faecal waste and behavioural change are some of the other aspects the mission needs to focus on. There are numerous external factors, including the participation of other ministries which play important roles in the success of Swachh Bharat. Along with building toilets, laying of pipelines for drinking water supply and proper sewage systems ought to be prioritised if the mission is to attain its goal. Behavioural change can only be hoped for when people have access to basic amenities, functional toilets with proper drainage being one of them. The ODF tag can only become a reality when people stop defecating in the open. Mere construction of toilets will not change a behavioural practice ongoing for decades. And toilets without basic amenities of water and drainage will only keep people away from using them.

It will be wrong to say that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is heading towards failure, as it is still an ongoing mission and there will be hiccups due to its scale of implementation. But simultaneous attention should be given to factors like drainage and water supply, while building toilets. The aim of the mission is also to eradicate the habit of open defecation and that can only happen when people have toilets which are usable, said Mahesh Thakur, Deputy Secretary, Swachh Bharat (Gramin).

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