Indian commuters drive along a busy road in New Delhi. Picture: NOEMI CASSANELLI / AFP
Indian commuters drive along a busy road in New Delhi. Picture: NOEMI CASSANELLI / AFP

Koppal/Shikrawa — Every morning around dawn dozens of people gather by the dusty banks of a stream snaking through Shikrawa village, two hours south of India’s capital, New Delhi, to do the same thing: defecate in the open. 

“There are close to 1,600 houses in Shikrawa. And I know for a fact that some 400 of those don’t have toilets,” said Khurshid Ahmed, a village council official in Shikrawa, in the northern state of Haryana.

Federal government records say Haryana — with its population of more than 25-million — is squeaky clean. The state, along with most others in India, is classified “open defecation-free”, while a World Bank-supported nationwide survey says only 0.3% of Haryana’s rural population defecates outside.

But interviews with over half a dozen surveyors involved in the World Bank-supported study, and two participating researchers, all raised concerns with the methodology of the survey, and its findings.

India’s sanitation programme had “succeeded in lifting more than 550-million people out of open defecation in a short period of less than five years”, India’s ministry of drinking water and sanitation said in a release on Friday in response to a Reuters article.

In Shikrawa, interviews with 27 people showed at least 330 villagers still defecate in the open because of a lack of toilets, issues with accessing water, or simply a dogged opposition to changing old habits. An hour away in the village of Nangla Kanpur, things are not any different.

The ministry said it “is difficult to comment on isolated incidents of nonusage”, but it believes that households may try to hide that they have a toilet, in the expectation of receiving further financial incentives to build toilets.

Studies link open defecation to public health issues, as it increases the spread of parasites due to water contamination. The World Bank said in 2016 one in every 10 deaths in India is linked to poor sanitation.

In a country plagued by sexual assault crimes, the lack of toilets also disproportionately affects women, who have to walk long distances before dawn or after dark to relieve themselves.

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the “Swachh Bharat”, or “Clean India”, campaign and vowed to eliminate open defecation nationwide in five years.

Modi, who is seeking re-election for a second term in polls that conclude on Sunday, has often used the success of Swachh Bharat in campaigning. “We got more than 100-million toilets built,” he said at a rally in north India on Sunday.

Swachh Bharat, a multibillion-dollar programme backed by money from the government and a World Bank loan, has built millions of latrines, but critics say official statistics paint an overly optimistic picture of its success.

“The whole point of this is for people’s health,” said Payal Hathi, a researcher consulted on the World Bank-backed survey. “It’s unfortunate that the data are so misleading.”

Data from the World Bank-supported national annual rural sanitation survey that concluded in February shows that only about 10% of rural Indians defecate in the open. The survey was conducted using funds from a $1.5bn World Bank loan for Swachh Bharat.

A separate study conducted over a similar timeline by the nonprofit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, at which Hathi was a researcher, shows 44% of the rural population across four large states still defecate in the open. 

The ministry said: “The Research Institute for Compassionate Economics has been repeatedly attempting to undermine the achievements of the Swachh Bharat Mission.” It said the institute has a history of “biased, motivated and untruthful” reporting.

The institute was not immediately reachable for further comment.

Survey meetings

Hathi and fellow researcher Nikhil Srivastav say they witnessed several lapses at meetings held to design the survey.

The specific goal of reporting low open-defecation levels was communicated clearly by government representatives to Kantar Public — the company contracted to conduct the survey — and by Kantar to the surveyors, the two said.

Kantar, owned by advertising giant WPP, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hathi said the national annual rural sanitation survey questionnaire contained leading queries about toilet usage that may have influenced respondents, and the government ignored suggestions aimed at fixing queries.

The ministry said it “categorically dismisses and denies the claims of the two Research Institute for Compassionate Economics researchers”.

Seven surveyors who collected national annual rural sanitation survey data and had a direct view of the sanitation situation in their respective regions gave Reuters state-wide estimates of open defecation that were sharply higher than the findings in the survey.

Two called the national annual rural sanitation survey findings “impossible” and said very little time had been spent questioning respondents.

The surveyors interviewed by Reuters worked in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka and declined to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

A national annual rural sanitation surveyor in western Rajasthan state said surveyors would mark a village as ODF — for open defecation-free — even if they spotted faeces on the ground or people defecating outside,  a violation of government guidelines.

“If we see some open defecation in stray cases away from the main centre of a village, we cannot mark the village as non-ODF,” he said, adding trainers from the ministry told surveyors to follow such practices.

The ministry denied the allegations and said surveyors typically have very limited knowledge of state-wide data.

World Bank funds

Despite researcher concerns around the lapses in the survey, the World Bank has so far given national annual rural sanitation survey-linked funds of $417.4m to India, a right-to-information request shows.

“The World Bank has not received any formal expressions of concern related to the work of the surveyors,” said a World Bank spokesperson. “An exercise of this scale will have inconsistencies.”

Reuters also visited the southern state of Karnataka. Across seven villages in Koppal district, at least 150 people defecate in the open, interviews with over 50 people showed. The Indian government also classifies Karnataka as “open defecation free”.

Many people in north and south India saids that a lack of toilets near fields where farmers spend their day, and poorly built toilets, all contribute to people defecating in the open.

Some say they were beaten or shamed by authorities publicly if found to be defecating outside. Others said they were threatened with food ration cuts.

Such coercion, sanitation experts say, discourages honest answers about toilet usage as villagers fear reprisals.

“The respondents will give you false answers,” said Nitya Jacob, a water and sanitation consultant. “They are all tutored to say ‘yes-yes’ we use toilets.”

The ministry said allegations that the responses would be “tutored is naïve at the best and malicious at worst”. It said it encourages anyone finding incidents of coercion to bring them to its attention and it would act.