Building demand for affordable latrines is key for sanitation in India, shows new research by the International Growth Centre

The Indian Government’s long-running latrine construction programme has been the almost exclusive focus of sanitation policy in India. However, research funded by the International Growth Centre suggests that this will do little to improve public hygiene unless the Government addresses lack of demand for affordable latrines in Indian villages.

Researchers conducted a quantitative survey of 3,200 households, and in-depth, qualitative interviews with 78 families in villages across rural north India and found that the inexpensive latrines with two small underground pits, recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), and provided by the Government, are almost uniformly disdained. They are seen as both physically dirty and impure in a ritual, or religious, sense.

In contrast, most people felt that expensive latrines with large pits or septic tanks – that do not have to be emptied – are a useful addition to their homes, although few people can afford them. However, some conservative rural Hindus find all latrines distasteful.

The main reason why people find the ’small’ government-recommended pits objectionable is because they have to be emptied manually. People mistakenly believe that they fill up in a matter of months. In fact, the latrine pit volume of around 60 cubic feet recommended by the Indian Government for a family of five should last six years.

Furthermore, people think that latrine pit emptying is the work of the lowest among the ‘untouchable castes.’  Non-untouchables refuse to empty their pits themselves, and the ongoing renegotiation of caste-based social rules means that people from untouchable castes are increasingly reluctant to do this work because it is widely seen as degrading.

The Indian government and the WHO recommend two pit latrines because they are less hazardous to health to empty manually.  After one pit fills, the household uses the second pit and leaves the waste in the first to decompose for around a year, after which any pathogens will have broken down safely.  However, even when the more sanitary nature of these latrines is explained to villagers, they do not see emptying them as being socially different to other ways of cleaning up human waste. In other societies, which do not have a history of untouchability and institutionalised discrimination against people who deal with faeces, the social dimensions of latrine pit emptying are not as problematic.

Diane Coffey, a PhD student at Princeton University and an author of the paper, said: “For decades Indian sanitation policy has focused on the construction of pit latrines, which, when built, are unlikely to be used. Our research shows that the government must address misinformation about how pit latrines work, as well as experiment with ways to either change or address villagers’ very real concerns about pit emptying, which stem from India’s history of untouchability.”

Seventy per cent of rural Indian households defecate in the open, without a toilet or latrine and this has severe consequences for infant mortality and for health. Over 60% of the people worldwide who defecate in the open live in India.

The full working paper is available on the project page.