In his annual speech on the hallowed anniversary of Indian independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about public defecation and its potential to harm an ever-strengthening India, pledging to eliminate it by 2019. However, the Indian people have been on the wrong end of such promising initiatives before, some spanning as far back as three decades. The story of India’s sanitation programs starts far before its modern history. In fact, excavations of the ancient Harappa societies of the Indus River Valley uncover an intricate network of underground drainage systems, some dating approximately 5,000 years ago.[1] Ideologically speaking, social reform has always been accompanied by innovation in the realm of sanitary engineering in India. This notion has been manifested in the writings of India’s major socio-political philosophers from Patanjali to the Gandhis. Under British colonial subjugation, this emphasis on public health was lost and only resurfaced when the cholera outbreaks that plagued the Indian people spread to the British ex-pats living in the country, afflicting members of the government and military.[2]

The proverbial back-seating of the issue of sanitation is the probable cause for the plague of 1896, which claimed 44,000 lives, both ethnically British and Indian. As a result, the Bombay Improvement Trust was enacted in 1898, serving as the first in a series of trusts established to ameliorate the quality of life and sanitary conditions in India’s urban centers.[3] While it seemed like a step in the right direction, the plan was implemented by Bombay’s mill owners, who were more concerned with securing sufficient labor from the city’s working class than with solving the housing crisis that underpinned the problem in the first place. Furthermore, the city improvement trust programs ended as the British exited India, limiting their potential long-standing impact on the Indian infrastructure and economy. Left with no established infrastructure or low-income housing, slums became the most popular residences among India’s urban poor; subsequently, ineffective and archaic means of sewage treatment became the societal norm.

One of the most prominent of these early techniques is the use of dry toilets and consequent manual scavenging. Dry toilets are defined as vessels for excrement without the capability to “flush” their contents, necessitating a manual means of treating sewage in the form of scavenging or the removal of waste via brooms or tin plates. This system is said to have originated in Europe in 1214; despite its primitive roots, it is still a very prevalent practice today with approximately 340,000 Indians working as manual scavengers.[4] This system is as problematically unsanitary as it sounds. These scavengers are not only ineffective at preventing such waste from entering common waterways but they themselves often contract the potentially fatal diarrheal diseases that are easily transmittable to other members of these interconnected communities.

As a result, the Indian government has taken several legislative measures to eradicate the practice from both urban and rural areas, including the 1993 prohibition and subsequent criminalization of the construction and operation of dry latrines, punishable by a yearlong prison sentence. Despite such portentous legal threats, no convictions were actually made under the law over the course of the 20 years it served as the baseline for India’s sanitation codes.[5] Many lawmakers in India came to the realization that they could not punish their way out of a public health crisis and took the fight against public defecation in a new direction, pledging to increase the population’s access to actual, running-water toilet systems to universal levels as the Modi administration is poising itself to. The way the government went about doing this was to provide 80% subsidies for the constructions of toilets in rural areas through the Central Rural Sanitation Program. However, 48% of India’s population practices open defecation and that portion is not exclusively concentrated in rural areas, as 46% of India’s public defecation occurs in urban areas.[6]

At the turn of the 21st century, India’s government abandoned the Central Rural Sanitation Program (CRSP) and completely overhauled its policies on sanitation, launching the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 2001. The initiative was promoted as a more demand-driven solution that focused on building awareness and splitting the toilet subsidy among India’s various levels of government, essentially minimizing the costs of what many saw as an expensive program. While the TSC indicated that India’s government was making sanitation a priority issue, crystallizing its commitment to eradicating dry sewage and public defecation, it became lost as new measures were enacted at the Gram Panchayat (local government) level and pre-existing initiatives were merged with new programs, confounding and convoluting the preliminary goals of each. This can be seen with the introduction of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) and 2007 Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) programs that concentrated sanitation efforts on poor localities, delegating administrative control to municipal schools and communities.[7]

However, the NBA was still partial towards rural communities, failing to address the ever-growing issue in India’s urban centers. Realizing this virtual ignorance of the issues surrounding urban sewage systems (or lack thereof), the National Urban Sanitation Policy was enacted in 2008 in an attempt to bring city sanitation plans into accordance with India’s national sanitation strategy.[8] This, in effect, tried to increase the benchmark for toilets and sanitation across India, making grant money contingent on tangible results and progress seen, a much-needed provision. While the number of functioning toilets and modernized sewage systems was increasing at a promising rate, their usage remained stagnant or even declined in some cases. For example, only 20% of the toilets constructed in 2001 were still standing in 2011, many had either become unusable due to poor construction and lack of maintenance or were taken down due to the fact that many Indians believe they “accumulate feces too close to the home”.[9]

This trend is reflective of what many experts have been saying for decades: India does not just need the construction of toilets but a change in the psychological and sociological disposition of its people to truly alter hygienic practices. Studies have been conducted across the country to gauge the population’s attitudes towards both public defecation and use of a traditional toilet; respondents in Odisha stated that they felt there was no stigma attached to public defecation. This sentiment seems to hold true across India’s provinces, in areas both rural and urban. Reasons for this range from pragmatic to dogmatic; some have aversions to constructed toilets due to ill-design and lack of usability while others have inherited the almost taboo use of toilets generationally. While none of the government’s infrastructure-focused policies have exacerbated the issue of public defecation in India, they have failed to consider the dynamic sociocultural factors that contribute to the problem; regulators have also been rather lackadaisical in implementing reforms and holding communities accountable for updating their sanitation systems.

[1] Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[2] Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[3] "HUMAN RIGHTS AND MANUAL SCAVENGING." Know Your Rights Series(2011): n. pag. National Human Rights Commission. Web. May 2015.

[4] Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[5] Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[6] Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[7]  Bhaumik, Sukanya. "India's Sanitation Story." Pragati RSS. N.p., 16 Aug. 2014. Web. 31 May 2015.

[8] Patil, Sumeet. "Sanitation Behavior Change Program." The World Bank, Nov. 2013. Web. May 2015.

[9] "Swachh Bharat Mission." Ministry of Urban Development (India). N.p., Sept. 2014. Web. May 2015.