Is Rural India Open Defecation Free? Govt Data Clash

Latest data from the National Statistical Office casts doubt on near-100% figures presented by Swacch Bharat data, with only 71% rural households having access latrines.
Picture of toilets

71.1% of rural households had access to latrines between July to December 2018, according to a report release by the National Statistical Office (NSO) under the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation. For urban areas, this figure stood at 96.2%. Overall, in India, 79.8% households have access to individual toilets.

These statistics come less than two months after Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared rural India open defecation free. He attributed this feat to the Swacch Bharat Mission, which undertook the construction of more than 101 million toilets across almost 6 lakh villages in rural areas and 6 million individual toilets in urban area. This was done over a period of five years, starting on October 2, 2014.

"Rural India and its people have declared themselves open-defecation free", said Modi, as he declared India open-defecation free in an address on October 2 this year.

The NSO has put out these numbers in their report named 'Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Conditions in India.' The report surveys 1,06,838 households of which 63,786 rural and 43,102 urban.

NSO vs. Swacch Bharat

Interestingly, these figures diverge from the data provided by the Swacch Bharat portal, which pegs these figures to be much higher in the same corresponding period.

At the end of FY2019, while the Swacch Bharat portal reports 98.63% progress towards toilet construction in rural India, the NSO report puts this figure only at 71.1%.

The NSO also puts Odhisha and Uttar Pradesh to be the states with least rural household access to toilets, with the figures standing at 49.3% and 52% respectively. However, Swacch Bharat puts these numbers at 87.06% for Odhisha and 100% for Uttar Pradesh in the period, although Odhisha occurs at the bottom of both tables.

Replies to the Lok Sabha on questions pertaining to toilets echo the figures presented by Swacch Bharat as well.

According to one reply by the Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation on December 13, 2018; as of December 7, Uttar Pradesh has 100% rural individual household latrine coverage, with Odhisha having 73.97% coverage. It also reiterates the government's aim of making rural India open defecation free by October 3, 2019; something that Swacch Bharat data and the Prime Minister Modi have indicated has been achieved.

The NSO report further states that Odhisha and Uttar Pradesh lag all almost categories of rural and pan-India individual household access to latrines.

NSO vs. National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey

The NSO survey also contradicts The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS). NARSS was a World Bank-backed independent verification survey of toilet usage, funded by a $1.5 billion loan, carried between October 2018 and February 2019.

The survey covered:

  • 6136 villages
  • 92,040 households
  • 5,782 schools
  • 5,803 angadwadi centres
  • 1,015 public toilets
  • 6,055 public spaces

The government cites this exercise to be the largest independent verification of sanitation, according to which 93.1% of rural India has access to toilets. While these figures too are in line with Swacch Bharat numbers, they are still way better than the coverage details provided by the NSO.

The NARSS was in its fair share of troubles earlier this year, as publications such as Reuters questioned the methodology of the survey. In turn, the government issued a point-by-point rebuttal of these allegations.

NSO acknowledges possible under-reporting

The rural sanitation numbers given by respondents, however, could be prone to under-reporting, says the survey.

It may be noted that there may be respondent bias in the reporting of access to latrine as question on benefits received by the households from government schemes was asked prior to the question on access of households to latrine.

The NSO themselves states that possible understating of government benefits received by them may be a ticket for them to receive even more public benefits.

"...inherent tendency of the respondent to give a negative reply on the presumption or expectation that a negative reply on benefits received and access to facilities, may help them to get additional benefits through government schemes. This respondent bias is difficult to isolate and measure using conventional survey techniques."

Nonetheless, any of these pan-India numbers would be a significant improvement as compared to the Swacch Bharat campaign which started in 2014, when only 38.7% of rural households had access to toilets.

Updated On: 2019-11-29T14:55:45+05:30
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