Switching to sanitation in South Asia

  • Sanitation is crucial for health and financial prosperity, and thus economic growth

  • 70% of households in rural India do not have a toilet or latrine

  • Cultural practices are the principal issue preventing improved sanitation

  • The Special Secretary, Chief Minister’s Office, Uttar Pradesh requested a hand-out for government servants and a pilot study testing interventions is being conducted

Good sanitation is crucial for peoples’ health and financial prosperity, and thus their country’s economic growth. According to the 2011 Census, 70% of households in rural India do not have a toilet or latrine. Indian rates of open defecation remain stubbornly high, much higher than in many other poorer countries in the world. Widespread open defecation in India is public health emergency, causing profound negative impacts on the productivity of India’s future workforce.

This IGC and the research institute for compassionate economics (r.i.c.e.) project explores why, despite India’s level of economic development, adoption of sanitation has been extremely slow. The researchers find that social and cultural forces that are unique to India explain its high rates of open defecation. The study presents quantitative and qualitative evidence that Hindu practices of purity and pollution, as well as India’s unique history and renegotiation of untouchability complicate the adoption of the kinds of simple, inexpensive latrines that have been used to reduce open defecation and improve health in rich countries before they were rich and in other developing countries.

The research found it is a mistake to believe that rural sanitation in India is principally an infrastructure shortage. The problem is not access. Demand for latrines is constrained by cultural practices concerning ritual impurity.