More Indians living in villages owned a latrine in 2018 than four years ago, yet 44% of them still defecate in the open, according to a survey covering Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh that was released on 4 January 2019. These four states together contain two-fifths of India's rural population and reported high open defecation rates, over 68% in 2016, as per this government report.Almost a quarter (23%) of those who own a latrine defecated in the open, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2014, researchers found. This can mostly be attributed to deeply entrenched beliefs about caste “impurity” associated with emptying latrine pits, the paper concluded.“Changes in open defecation in rural north India: 2014–2018”, a working paper published by the research and policy advocacy Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) and New Delhi-based policy think tank Accountability Initiative (AI), is based on surveys of over 9,812 people and 156 government officials in 2018.The researchers first visited these participants in October 2014, a few months before the launch of India’s national sanitation programme Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) or Clean India Mission.In August 2018, they revisited them to gauge the impact of the mission. Observations from AI's 2017 survey in Udaipur, Rajasthan were also added to the survey.The study “grossly misleads the reader and does not reflect the ground reality,” the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, in-charge of Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen), told IndiaSpend in an email response.Asserting that the ministry is on track to achieve open-defecation free status for all of India, it said 90 million toilets have been built across rural India, and the national rural sanitation coverage has increased from 34% to 98% during 2014-18. The ministry also pointed to various independent verification of toilet usage.The authors of the study said they stand by their results and methodology, which is adequately explained in this working paper. They reiterated that much rural open defecation persists in the region they studied, despite many latrines having been constructed, and that latrines were often constructed through coercion and threats.The ministry’s and authors’ responses are appended at the end of this story.However, there was a problem with the new structures: Most were based on the single pit design, not the twin-pit one the government recommended. The twin-pit design allows decomposition of faecal sludge in one pit, while the other is being used, providing a safe way of emptying it. Single pits require undecomposed sludge to be emptied manually or through expensive suction machines.The Swachh Bharat campaign was largely focused on latrine construction and it did little to address attitudes to latrine pits, rooted in notions of purity and pollution, said Aashish Gupta, research fellow at RICE, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and the lead author of the paper. “Consequently, while toilet coverage increased, open defecation among toilet owners did not decline,” he said.A FactChecker.in investigation in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh in 2018 also found fudged data and unusable, poor quality toilets with high open defecation.Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh Not Open Defecation-Free Yet, Contrary to ClaimsRajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two states that had declared themselves open defecation-free, are yet to achieve that goal. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh 53% and 25% respectively were estimated to be defecating in the open.Open defecation had not been eliminated in any of the districts surveyed in north India, researchers said. This is despite a “rapid” decline of almost 6 percentage points in open defecation rate every year, as per the paper.“The government is both overselling its claim and not measuring what needs to be measured [open defecation]” said Gupta.There has been 34-percentage-point increase in latrine ownership in north India from 37% in 2014 to 71% in 2018. The highest difference was reported in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – 47 percentage points.However, the survey found 40% of households with latrine and 56% of all households had at least one family member defecating in the open. Bihar at 60% and Rajasthan at 53% led the four-state open defecation list. Madhya Pradesh had the lowest rate – 25%.Researchers analysed the results and found that the decrease in open defecation rate in last four years was driven not by behaviour change but was the result of increased latrine ownership. This is the also reason that the 23% of latrine owners who defecated in the open unchanged from 2014 to 2018.“This finding is consistent with our qualitative interviews, which found that local officials were far more likely to stress latrine construction as a priority of the SBM than they were to stress use of latrines,” noted the paper.Self-Constructed Latrines More Likely to be UsedOf the 57% of participants who built a latrine during the four years covered by the survey, 42% got some kind of government support. Also, an average of 17% of these latrines were built by the government or a contractor. The number of contractor-built structures was the highest in Madhya Pradesh (33%), followed by Uttar Pradesh (22%).It matters who built the latrines. Contractor-built latrines were generally of poorer quality and it was found that households that built their own latrines were 10 percentage points more likely to use them than others.The paper found most contractor-built latrines were in Adivasi households which could be because these were poorer and unlikely to spend their own money on toilet construction. Also, corrupt contractors have an easier time skimming funds in Adivasi areas, it was alleged in the paper.Manually-Scavenged Single Pits Still PreferredMost toilets built (40%) had single pits, while twin pits were observed in only 25% of latrines. Moreover, 31% of the latrines had a containment chamber which meant they had to be emptied by a suction machine and was the most expensive of all toilet designs.However, in the latrines that were supported by the government, the twin pit was the design of choice especially in Uttar Pradesh where 61% of latrines had this design. One reason for this could be that people could access a government subsidy of Rs 12,000 if they opted for a twin pit.Local government officials admitted in interviews to researchers that most villagers preferred containment chambers and 48% latrine owners with twin pits said that both the pits were used at the same time, defeating the idea of the sustainable design.Adivasis, Dalit Households More Likely to Face Threats, FinesIn all four states, 56% of respondents said they were aware of coercive methods – fines, threat of denial of benefits, stopped from open defecation – used to persuade people to construct a latrine. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, 47% and 42% of respondents, respectively, had heard of government benefits being denied to those without latrines.“Instead of challenging caste, Swachh Bharat Mission ended up reinforcing it,” said Gupta. This is because while the programme used community-led total sanitation approach of creating a demand in the community, it overlooked the fact that Indian villages are highly divided among caste lines, he said.In all four states, among households that owned a latrine, Dalit households were twice as likely, and Adivasi households thrice, to face coercive practices compared to other social groups. They were more likely to face threats, irrespective of whether or not they owned a latrine, the survey showed.Dalits and Adivasis More Likely To Be Coerced Also, those who were coerced into constructing a latrine were less likely to use the latrine.Most local officials did not think these measures were inappropriate or excessive. They relied on these measures to reach the toilet construction target in an ‘unreasonably short time’, the researchers noted.Taboos Linked with Idea of ‘Purity’ Still RampantResearchers found Hindu households with latrines were more likely to defecate in the open than Muslim households. Also, Hindu households with larger pits were less likely to defecate in the open than those with smaller pits. This could be because smaller pits require frequent emptying which is associated with ‘caste impurity’.Open Defecation Among Latrine Owners, By Pit Size & Religion, 2018To accommodate bigger pits, households that built their own toilet, on average, spent Rs 34,000 – almost three times the government subsidy of Rs 12,000. This difference explains why households had to be coerced into building a latrine, said researchers.Efforts to spread awareness about the twin-pit design and sustainable and affordable faecal sludge management – the video campaign featuring actor Akshay Kumar emptying a latrine is one example – were not sufficiently prominent, said the paper.“To end open defecation, coercive tactics should end. Instead, latrine use should be encouraged alongside efforts to transform the social attitudes that have made open defecation so challenging to change,” Gupta said.Response from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation:Under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen), over 540,000 villages and 585 districts have been declared open defecation free (ODF). As many as 27 states and union territories have declared themselves ODF so far. Over 90 million toilets have been built across rural India so far, taking the national rural sanitation coverage to over 98% today, up from 39% in 2014.This progress has been independently verified by a large scale third-party National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-18 under the World Bank-supported project across 90,000 households in over 6,000 villages which found the rural toilet usage to be 93.4%.Two more independent surveys conducted in the past by the Quality Council of India in 2017, and National Sample Survey Organization in 2016, found the usage of toilets to be 91% and 95%, respectively. The mission is on track to achieve an ODF India by October 2019.In this context, the ministry has come across media reports quoting certain surveys rife with methodological and technical deficiencies. A recent study, titled “Changes in open defecation in rural North India: 2014-2018”, grossly misleads the reader and does not reflect the ground reality. Some of the deficiencies and gaps found in the report are:Statistically insignificant and non-representative sample: The report quotes a survey of merely 1,558 households in 157 villages against nearly 50 million households and 230,000 villages in the four states surveyed - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.The survey also covers only 2 (out of 33) districts in Rajasthan, 3 (out of 38) districts in Bihar, 3 (out of 75) districts in Uttar Pradesh and 3 (out of 52) districts in Madhya Pradesh, and comes up with extrapolations and exaggerated judgements on sanitation status across these states.Since the SBM is the largest behaviour change programme in the world, to pick such a small sample and extrapolate results to an entire state is over simplistic. Such surveys have a huge margin of error.Lack of clarity on survey timing: The report also repeatedly mentions that the survey was conducted in “late 2018”, but conspicuously fails to mention the exact dates, which is very misleading as the SBM is an extremely fast moving programme, and sanitation status has changed exponentially, on a month-to-month basis, in the last year. The survey in fact includes a companion study from Udaipur which was even older (April-June 2017).New households: The 2018 survey adds 21% new households as compared to 2014. In such a small survey, an inclusion of overall 21% new households (as high as 1/3rd in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) can substantially alter the outcome and renders the results non-comparable.Flawed questionnaire: The key question is on ownership of toilets and not access to a toilet. In reality, some households share toilets, and some use community and public toilets when they may not have a personal household toilet. This is not covered at all through the questionnaire used in the study.Poor understanding of what constitutes “coercion”: The report also makes attempts to establish that coercion has been used to make people build and use toilets under SBM. The SBM strongly supports positive behaviour change and the ministry takes note of any coercion in implementation very seriously. Unfortunately, the report fails to distinguish between coercion and affirmative community action, like local Nigrani Samitis, or local GP or community level sanctions on open defecation, which reflects the limited understanding of the community approach to sanitation among the survey conductors and analysers.Given the glaring gaps in the aforementioned survey, the ministry would like to highlight that reports based on such erroneous, inconsistent and biased studies serve to mislead readers.Authors’ ResponseThe authors affirm that the survey was conducted from September to December 2018.They stand by their results and methodology, which is explained in this working paper, which also contains the questionnaire.The authors reiterated their findings that much rural open defecation persists in the region they studied, despite many latrines having been constructed, and that latrines were often constructed through coercion and threats.(The story has been updated on January 10, 2019, to incorporate the response of the ministry of drinking water & sanitation and the authors’ response.)(Yadavar is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)(This piece was originally published on IndiaSpend and has been republished with permission.) 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