Swachh Bharat by 2019? Progress projections and the challenges of latrine use

WaterAid/Mansi Thapliyal

The Swachhta Status Report 2016 developed by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) was released this month by the Government of India. Based on an extensive survey conducted in mid-2015, the report provides interesting insights on the sanitation situation in India. To highlight a few on the rural side:

  • 45 per cent households reported having sanitary toilets in rural areas.
  • 44 per cent villages had no arrangement for drainage.
  • 23 per cent villages where the community toilets are not cleaned.

These numbers provide an adequate snapshot on some of the challenges to be addressed to make India “Swachh” in reality.

But the relevance of the survey is that it provides the first nationally representative survey based data since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) [SBM (G)] in October 2014. Taking into account the lack of reliability of the sanitation coverage data in the past —especially from the time of the Total Sanitation Campaign— it represents an important opportunity to verify the quality of the SBM (G) monitoring system.

The survey found rural sanitation coverage to be 45.3 per cent. Analysing the SBM (G) online monitoring portal, we can see the number of toilets built between October 2014 and May 2015 —month in which the NSSO data were collected— at 58 lakh toilets, which leads to 45.32 per cent coverage (1), the same as the survey reports. This shows the accuracy of the SBM (G) reporting mechanisms at least until mid-2015.

The confirmed reliability of the SBM (G) monitoring system allows us to analyse the coverage data and explore progress trends as in the graph below (1).



Assuming linear progress (yellow trend line), 75 per cent of rural households will be covered by 2 October 2019, the date set by Prime Minister Modi as the target for the country to become open defecation free. However, taking into account that progress has been accelerating since the launch of SBM in 2014, and assuming this exponential growth continues (blue trend line), the coverage would reach almost 85 per cent in October 2019.

One can debate on which of the two estimations is more accurate. Building on increased efficiency as scale is reached may help sustain momentum and continue the exponential acceleration observed (or even increase it!). However, once more favourable areas have been covered, progress might slow down. Slippage, sustainability issues and population growth might similarly make linear progress more likely. The most realistic estimation could be in between, around 80 per cent.

In any case, if India is indeed to keep coverage increasing yearly over five percentage points, this will be a tremendous improvement, looking at pre-SBM rates of progress, but also at what other countries have been able to do.

The problem however, is that these numbers are about toilets built, not about toilets used! Having physical access to a toilet does not mean usage. Even if a toilet is used, it might be used only at certain times of the day, by certain family members, or in specific seasons. 40 per cent of households with working latrines had at least one member defecating in the open, according to the 2014 SQUAT survey. The Swachhta Status Report figure of 95 per cent use among individuals in rural households having a toilet is hard to believe for anyone with experience in the sector. It rather represents the difficulty of measuring latrine use.

Much more than sustaining and accelerating the pace of coverage increase, the crucial challenge SBM (G) needs to tackle is indeed the use of latrines. Otherwise, even the gains in coverage will not be sustainable.

To do so, the first step is to better understand the gap between coverage and use: how big it is and why it is happening. Only then can adequate resources be devoted to it.

There are salient opportunities to move in this direction in the annual verification survey that the SBM (G) guideline includes and which will be soon set up as part of performance based World Bank’s loan for the SBM (G). One of the key indicators that will be verified is latrine use (framed as reduction of open defecation). But the devil is in the detail: how will use be measured?

Methods like the ones used in the NSSO survey may not work. The Rice Institute suggested better ways to ask about toilet use in a survey, which could make a difference if coupled with good training of surveyors.

Another option is to embed an in-depth module to the survey, with tools such as interviews or observations. Being time intensive, this module would not be applied to the whole survey sample, but just to a much smaller randomly selected subset of the sample. These tools would allow an accurate measurement of toilet use, enabling estimations of the coverage-use gap. For instance, “in Haryana 65 per cent of households members that have access to a functional latrine use it consistently” (imaginary example). Consequently, rough estimations of the overall use could be made. Such an in-depth module could include questions to explore the drivers of behaviour, too, which could feed into the development of IEC strategies.

The importance of measuring use, along with the opportunity provided by the soon-to-be set up verification mechanism, could be better acknowledged, and calls for a comprehensive discussion among key sector actors about the best ways forward.

(1) Progress in rural sanitation coverage (Source: Household Toilet Coverage Across India [online], available at: http://sbm.gov.in/sbmdashboard/IHHL.aspx. Accessed 13 September 2016)

Date Individual Household Latrines constructed (crores) Coverage (per cent)
Sep-14* 0.00 42.12
Oct-14 0.05 42.40
Nov-14 0.10 42.67
Dec-14 0.16 43.00
Jan-15 0.23 43.39
Feb-15 0.31 43.83
Mar-15 0.49 44.82
Apr-15 0.53 45.04
May-15 0.58 45.32
Jun-15 0.65 45.70
Jul-15 0.73 46.14
Aug-15 0.81 46.58
Sep-15 0.92 47.19
Oct-15 1.03 47.79
Nov-15 1.15 48.45
Dec-15 1.26 49.06
Jan-16 1.38 49.72
Feb-16 1.52 50.49
Mar-16 1.76 51.82
Apr-16 1.78 51.93
May-16 1.85 52.31
Jun-16 1.99 53.08
Jul-16 2.13 53.85
Aug-16 2.16 54.02
Sep-16** 2.43 55.48

*: Sep-14 represents the baseline point

**: Sep-16 data point was estimated based on coverage by 13th September 2016, when the analysis was conducted

Andrés Hueso is Senior Policy Analyst on Sanitation at WaterAid. He Tweets as @andreshuesoWA

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