You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

India’s Futile War on Open Defecation

As the country heads to the polls, the current prime minister is declaring victory in his "Clean India" campaign. His party still won't acknowledge that the real problem is inequality.

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Over the next six weeks, Indian voters will choose their leaders in the world’s largest-ever election. Whether citizens will opt for the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the more secular Congress Party of Rahul Gandhi remains to be seen. Where most citizens will defecate before they vote is, unfortunately, easier to predict. And while it might not seem like the most obvious metric of political success, the matter has become a symbol of contradictions at the heart of the ruling party’s platform.

It seems to be India’s most intransigent habit. Even as the country grows and flourishes, erects gleaming sky-scrapers, and churns out highly trained engineers, the government cannot get its citizens to give up open defecation. In 2015, one report estimated that 522 million Indians defecated in the open and in fields.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party promised to change all that when he won elections in 2014. One of the party’s pledges, stated prominently in its manifesto, was the transformation of the India they inherited into a “Swachh Bharat,” or “Clean India.” Once in power, the BJP wasted no time in launching a $31 billion program to rid India of this onerous habit: Every Indian household was to have a toilet.

Last fall, while campaigning for elections which begin this week on April 11, Modi declared victory over open defecation. “The radius of rural sanitation before 2014 was approximately 38 percent, but today it is 94 percent,” Modi said. Seventy-six percent of Indian households, his government alleged in defiance of numerous critics of the program, now had a toilet.

Last year, however, a study conducted in Dharmapuri, a district in the state of Tamil Nadu that ranks the highest in the state for open defecation, offered a more pessimistic assessment. The study found that 55 percent chose to defecate in the open despite having access to a toilet, for reasons having to do either with the toilet’s construction or with personal preference or belief. The BJP’s toilet-building efforts resulted in the construction of toilets that were sub-standard, not connected to running water, or with faulty pipes or insufficiently large holes—villagers worried that the hole would fill up with excrement while they were using it. Many more said they believed using a toilet was more unhealthy and dangerous than open defecation. And while Modi has insisted that his message of taking pride in cleanliness (and hence shame in open defecation) had been successful, villagers reported no stigma associated with open defecation.

Mass construction of toilets is a handy metric, progress being measured, implicitly, by access instead of use. What it doesn’t address is behavioral change, and behavioral change is a particularly tricky proposition for the Bharatiya Janata Party. A Hindu nationalist party, its populist appeal is largely constructed on the idea that India is a Hindu nation and that everyone in it is culturally Hindu regardless of their actual beliefs. This premise has in turn led them to institute widespread changes which give Hinduism pride of place in state matters and sidelines religious minorities like Christians and Muslims. But Hinduism also involves the caste system. And the caste system plays no small role when it comes to open defecation.

Traditionally, Hinduism has four main caste groups: Brahmins at the top, followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The lowest ranked group is not included in the four-level hierarchy, and they are simply called Dalits or untouchables. This last group is essentially constructed “outside” of society: Contact with them, eating anything that they cook or using things that they touch, is believed to lead to impurity or loss of caste. Like all other discriminatory hierarchies, this one keeps adherents in line by frightening them with the loss of privilege and identity if they show sympathies for those born lower than them. Higher castes previously avoided all relations with Dalits, even requiring them to wear a pot under their chins to prevent their spit from falling to the ground and contaminating it.

In the post-colonial era, a sense of contamination lingers around the menial tasks Dalits were once associated with. Higher caste Hindus often cannot fathom cleaning up excrement from a pit toilet, associating it with “untouchable” work. The natural consequence of this is a continuing habit of open defecation—where individuals never have to confront the task of removing the excrement and hence becoming tainted or impure. Dalits themselves have moved away from cleaning up India’s excrement. The result is a country regularly producing excrement without a means to get rid of what it produced.

Another government could engage in a straightforward project of de-emphasizing the caste system, trying to dislodge dated and extremely discriminatory ideas of purity and contamination. But for Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, centering their vision of India on Hindu revivalism, caste included, it would be contradictory to turn around and insist that while most aspects of Hinduism must be elevated as the best possible way to be, the caste system specifically in its relation to defecation and the emptying of pit toilets is to be surgically eliminated.

Instead, to tackle behavior without undermining its larger position regarding faith and the future of India, the BJP has resorted to bullying some of the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Where there has been decline in rates of open defecation, according to a survey released in January, the reduced percentages are often due to coercive tactics such as fines and threats. Dalits and Adivasis (tribal groups that are not a party of the caste system) were most likely to be threatened.

As elections commence, India continues to defecate in public, leading to innumerable health problems and serving as a serious check on the country’s continued development. Next door in Bangladesh, which has less than half of India’s per capita income, the problem of open defecation has been successfully tackled, reduced from an estimated 42 percent to only 1 percent. The plan deployed there was not fundamentally different from the Modi plan: large-scale construction of toilets, to make them available to every family. Some of Bangladesh’s success could be attributed to impressive village-level reeducation campaigns. But reeducation was also a feature of Indian efforts. The more obvious difference between the two countries is that in Bangladesh, the absence of caste, impurity, and contamination norms made behavioral change less onerous.

In the past month, the BJP has wrapped up election campaigning by declaring the goals of Swachh Bharat achieved. In reality, many Indian states, including ones in which the BJP is expected to win a majority, have not yet eradicated a practice that is more prevalent in India than anywhere else in the world. And this uncomfortable fact has revealed a deep problem at the heart of the BJP’s right-wing, populist appeal: an inability to come up with a revivalist Hinduism as egalitarian as it is unifying, as practical for the purposes of hygiene as it is for political gain.