Most people who live in India defecate in the open. Most people worldwide who defecate in the open live in India. Open defecation has direct consequences: it causes malnutrition leading to death (especially for babies), the exposure to germs impedes the physical and cognitive development of surviving children, which is proven to result in stouted childrens growth and reduces the human capital of India‘s workforce. Open defecation is associated with significant negative externalities: it releases germs into the environment which harm the rich and poor alike—even those who use latrines.
As the rest of the world steadily eliminates open defecation, this behaviour stubbornly persists in India. Indeed, with 67% of rural households and 13% of urban households defecating in the open (Census 2011), India now accounts for 60% of the world‘s open defecation. India has seen decades of government spending on latrine construction and sustained economic growth, but rural open defecation has remained stubbornly high.
Open defecation has many sources and can’t simply be reduced on the access to sanitation. The Indian Government has set the official goal to end OD by 2019. To achieve the goal many public and private latrines were constructed. But what many studies show, and what I’ve experienced is the finding that many people in households that own working latrines nevertheless defecate in the open and that government-provided latrines are especially unlikely to be used. Additionally, even if the government were to build a latrine for every household without changing anybody‘s preferences, most people would still defecate in the open, which happens because many people have a preference for open defecation.
The following picture shows a simple latrine provided by the government in the house of a family which lives in a slum in Bangalore. The latrine doesn’t have a flush system, it has to be flushed manually with a bucket of water. This might be inconvenient for Europeans, but it’s normal in India. However, the people who own this toilet never use it, for defecation they use the spot which is shown in picture 2.
The reason why the family doesn’t use their private toilet is shown in picture 4. It shows the complete house of that family, which cosists of 5 members. You can estimate the size of the living room by the lenght of the bed. Behind the living room is the kitchen, and directly next to it, seperated by a curtain, is the bathroom. The proximity to the kitchen and the absence of a proper door turns the bathroom into an unusable space.
In short, many people have a revealed preference for open defecation, such that providing latrine access without promoting latrine use is unlikely to importantly reduce open defecation. Latrine construction is not enough. Instead, if the Government is to achieve its goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019, it must concentrate on building demand for latrine use in India.
Source: SQUAT Working Paper No. 1