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Global Ideas

Changing toilet habits

India's ambitious program to stop open defecation is not just about building toilets. The real challenge is to motivate people to use them.

Bildergalerie Indien Hygiene (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

A man cleans a toilet complex run by NGO Sulabh International at a New Delhi train station. Toilets like these are still few and far between in the country

"We are not quite used to it yet," Ramu says, after a long silence. The question was whether he enjoys his new toilet. The squat commode leading to two large pits in the ground was constructed two weeks ago on the small courtyard in front of his one-room house in the village Mothuka, a two hour drive from the Indian capital New Delhi. But Ramu, like many of his fellow villagers, does not use the facility yet on every occasion.

"We do use it most of the time," his wife Manji ensures. Like Ramu, she has no last name. Both work as daily wage workers in agriculture. Manji is happy she does not have to find a place in the nearby jungle every time she or one of her four children has to go. "But it is still a bit strange to do it so close to your husband and neighbous. What if they can hear me through the wall? And it seems more smelly, as there is no fresh air around you."

Since constructing their toilet with a government subsidy, Ramu and Manji belong to a small minority of rural Indian households. Over 600 million people in the country still regularly defecate in the open. That this is not just a matter of wealth, but of cultural habit as well, becomes clear when comparing India to poorer neighboring countries such as Bangladesh. Hardly anyone defecates in the open here. India needs to wipe out the practice too, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious program Swachh Bharat (Clean India).

Construction site

Indien Toiletten (Aletta Andre)

Ramu and Manji in front of their new toilet. They are part of a small minority of Indian households with a commode

Since Swachh Bharat was launched in October 2014, about 18 million toilets have been built. The government provides a 12,000 rupee (165 euros) subsidy per household for this purpose. In some places, like Mothuka, the elected village committee has allocated budget to provide every house with a toilet. The village looks like a construction site. Many houses have a brand new stall in their courtyard, with a commode waiting to be put in. Other houses just have two large holes that will store the content of the future toilet. The pipe will be diverted to the second hole once the first is filled. After that, the content of the first hole can be used as fertilizer. 

For people who don't have a courtyard, the village committee has constructed a community toilet and hired a cleaner to maintain it. To build a toilet inside the house, under the same roof where one eats and sleeps, remains a taboo.

But building toilets is just the first step, says Upendra Singh, who is the local government's consultant for the implementation of Swachh Bharat. "To motivate people to use them, that is our main work. People need to want a toilet… it needs to become a priority for them. We need to change their habits somehow."

Rare outing

Indien Toiletten (Aletta Andre)

A hole in the ground for a new toilet in the Indian village of Mothuka. The government is providing subsidies so more people can build toilets at home

A 2014 survey of over 3000 rural Indian households by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) indicated that 40 percent of people, who have a toilet at home, prefer to use an open field instead. Though it's mostly men who prefer to make trip outside the house for the toilet, women too have admitted to preferring the open air. Despite safety issues, women in certain regions use their toilet visits as one of the very few occasions they can get out of the house. Furthermore, many the open air is more hygienic than filling up a hole close to home. Having to empty this hole at a later stage is a great concern - even if it is converted into odorless fertilizer. Another issue is the scarcity of water to clean the commodes. 

To motivate people, Singh and his team of cluster motivators, who each cover 25 villages, go from door to door to teach people about basic hygiene. "We make it graphic. For example, I show them how I touch cow dung, and then I offer them a glass of water with the same hand. When they are disgusted, I explain that when they defecate in the open, flies will first touch their poop and after that their water and food as well."

Shame

Alongside disgust, shame is one of the team's motivation techniques. Every village has a vigilance committee, headed by the elected village leader, which patrols in the morning hours to catch people in the act. Some wealthy villages even have cameras installed for this purpose.

"When you do it in someone else's field, they will scold you," says 20-year-old Vijay Vishwanath. "It is certainly embarrassing." His mother, Tara, sits in their spacious courtyard doing the dishes. Their new toilet is under construction. Asked why they had never built a toilet before, she says: "We are poor people." Behind her, there are three buffalos, as well as a motorbike worth at least three toilets. Their house has two stories.

Indien Toiletten (Aletta Andre)

Tara Vishwanath next to her new toilet in the Indian village Mothuka

After some persuasion, Tara elaborates. "I guess it used to be less important. There was enough space in the jungle. But after the development of some office buildings and colleges nearby, the jungle is gone. There is more pressure coming from the government these days," she says. 

Singh is not surprised to hear about a family with a parked motorbike, but no toilet. "This is nothing. I have seen houses where people have two cars, but no toilet."

Still, he is optimistic about the success of Swachh Bharat. "We will just have to continue to visit all villages, to follow up on our motivational meetings and to hear all issues and concerns people will come across. Ultimately, the people will see the benefits."
 

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