Addressing the Indian community at the Audi Dome in Munich, Germany on Monday, 27 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi listed the numerous achievements of his government, one of which was that all villages in India were open defecation free (ODF).
Speaking about how Indians have "achieved big goals together," the prime minister remarked that "today, every village in India is open defecation free."
(The remark can be heard at around 27 minutes 20 seconds into the video)
However, as per the latest government data and reports available, not all villages are free of open defecation. While there has certainly been a significant increase in access to toilets, the '100 percent' claim is inaccurate.
How Does Government Define ODF?
It defines ODF as the "termination of faecal-oral transmission, defined by no visible faeces found in the environment/village; and every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of faeces."
What Do the Government Reports Say?
1. NFHS DATA
First, we took a look at the NFHS-5 report, which gives the percentage distribution of households by the type of toilet facility available.
As per this data, 6.1 percent households use open spaces or fields to defecate in urban areas, while the number stands at 26 percent for rural areas in the 2019-2021 report.
Nearly 19 percent of the households in India still don't have access to any facility, as per NFHS data.
This is certainly an improvement from NFHS-4 (2015-2016).
Speaking to The Quint, Raman VR, an independent Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) expert, said that the NFHS-5 report was the most recently published study that talks about sanitation coverage in India, and that "the actual toilet coverage should be closer to what NFHS is saying."
2. NARSS REPORT SHOWS 5.6 PERCENT OF RURAL HOUSEHOLDS 'PRACTISE OPEN DEFECATION'
Next, we looked at the 2019-2020 NARSS report.
The NARRS report carried demographic indicators for households with shared, public, or own toilets, further categorising for information such as income and caste.
This report detailed the number of households by functional toilets with water supply and water usage by people.
The NARSS report surveyed 91,934 rural households and found that 94.4 percent of them had access to toilets.
In villages that had been declared completely free of open defecation, 98 percent of surveyed households said they had toilet access, compared to the 77 percent in non-ODF villages.
Overall, it found that 5.6 percent of the households did not have access to a toilet, "meaning they practise open defecation."
It then elaborated on state-wise reports, with more than 99 percent of households in Tripura, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan having access to toilets.
However, only 73.6 percent of households in Bihar, 89.6 percent of houses in Odisha, and 89.8 percent of Puducherry households reported that they had access to toilets.
3. NSO DATA
Lastly, we looked at the data released by National Statistical Office (NSO), under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), for 2018, which is the office's last available report on sanitation.
As per the NSO's 2018 document, approximately 50.3 percent of households in rural India had "exclusive access to bathroom," with the figure being slightly higher at 56.6 percent for those having access to bathrooms in general.
It stated that 28.7 percent of the households in rural areas reported not having access to latrines, during the survey.
The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation had expressed concern over the low number of people with access to toilets in 2019, when the working team had gathered to approve the survey report, reported Business Standard.
Citing the NARSS 2017-2018 survey, the government had said that rural toilet usage was around 93.4 percent. Experts on the working committee found the NSO report to be accurate, and asked the ministry to re-examine its own data.
As a result, the report was approved with a section on a possible "respondent's bias," which states that it may have occurred due to a question on receiving government benefits being asked prior to the question about latrine access.
Although a dated report, it must be noted that in 2019 itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared India to be 'Open Defecation Free' on 2 October at Gujarat's Sabarmati Ashram, which this report contradicts.
Why Do These Figures Differ?
As seen, none of the figures of any of the three reports tally with the others.
Speaking to The Quint, Former Member and Acting Chairman of the National Statistical Commission, PC Mohanan, said that while there was a commendable rise in the number of people with access to toilets, the government's claim of the figure being 100 percent was "not acceptable."
"These are sample surveys. There will always be a margin of error and you cannot expect them to provide identical information. The focus of the survey also makes a difference."PC Mohanan, Former Member and Acting Chairman of the National Statistical Commission
For instance, he said that the NFHS-5 asked people whether they had access to toilets, whereas NARSS asked respondents about its usability, safety, and waste management systems as well.
"In my experience, surveys about access to toilets are much more accurate than other surveys, like income or expenditure, and are collected better. This is something they know, anyone in the household can give an answer, it need not be the head of the household," he said.
Mohanan added that the crux of the issue was that the surveys asked people whether they had access to toilets, adding that access and usage were two different things.
It must be noted that NFHS collected data through surveys, with details such as access to toilets, whether they were shared with other households, and the waste disposal systems of said toilets.
Meanwhile, the NARSS report collected more information about the quality, accessibility, and usability of toilets for each surveyed household.
It must be noted that the data presented is for rural households, and NARSS provided separate data for public spaces, anganwadis, and schools.
What's the Ground Reality?
Ahead of the Assembly elections in Bihar in 2020, The Quint travelled to Rathi village in Bihar’s Madhubani and found that most women in the village were defecating in the open.
Another report published in India Today in 2021, highlighted the reality of the 'open defecation free status' of Agra and mentioned how despite the tag, hundreds of people continued to defecate in the open.
Speaking about this, Mohanan said that in his experience, he has observed that the northern parts of the country were more densely packed, making it a little more difficult to build toilets inside the house. So, there were more shared toilets there.
"All the toilets are not located inside the household. Hardly 55 percent of households have them inside the residence. Most of the toilets constructed by the government are shared toilets."PC Mohanan, Former Member and Acting Chairman of the National Statistical Commission
He added that people often don't use these toilets because they are ashamed of others finding out "how many times and when" did they use it.
While it is evident that the government has worked towards providing access to toilets to people in the country (urban and rural areas), to say that the status of all villages in India is '100 percent ODF' is inaccurate.
(Note: We have reached out to the Prime Minister's Office about this, and the story will be updated if and when we receive a reply.)
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