Public Policy

Open Defecation in India

 “Jawaharlal Nehru said that the day every citizen of India will get toilet to use, I shall know that the country has reached the pinnacle of the success.”

Sanitation is a taboo in our country. Nobody likes to discuss topics like sanitation, open defecation, toilets etc. It is essentially one of the least important subject matters for the people as well as the government; and the result is that the largest democracy of the world has the largest number of open defecators too. Yes, it is true. India accounts for more than 600 million people who defecate in open.[1] This amounts to nearly half of India’s population. India lags behind the less developed countries like Bangladesh, Burundi and other Sub-Saharan African countries in the data of open defecators.

Open defecation has only harmful effects and nothing else. It breeds innumerable diseases and the easiest targets are children. Diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of infants’ death, is largely the result of poor sanitation. India loses 1000 children every day due to diarrheal diseases.[2] Due to these diseases, the families and the govt. have to spend more on healthcare facilities, the cost which can easily be avoided by concerted efforts for improved sanitation. According to a study, the economic losses that India suffers due to open defecation amounts to $2.4 trillion.[3]

Open defecation also affects the cognitive and physical growth of children. According to the study conducted by Dean Spears, the main reason behind less development of cognitive skills and physical growth in India is open defection.[4] While malnutrition also leads to these consequences, however malnutrition is not the only cause as the large amount of energy is wasted by body in putting up fight against these pathogens bred by open defecation.

Open defecation is also one of the most important causes of high dropout rate of girls from schools. Once girls reach puberty, parents don’t want their daughters to attend the schools which don’t have separate toilet facilities for boys and girls. They fear that their girls might be subjected to any molestation or related crime which may devastate their future. The threat of sexual assaults persists not only in schools but also in the areas where they live. Women generally wait for dark and go to secluded places to relive themselves so that they escape the eyes of men however; the very darkness also increases their vulnerability to the sexual attacks. The recent case of gang rape in Badaun, U.P. happened when the two unfortunate girls were on their way to the toilet.[5] Open defecation also leads to environment pollution. The human excreta get washed way and get mixed in the land or water bodies which pollute the environment.

If open defecation is the cause of so many problems, why does it still persist and what is the history of sanitation in India?

If one looks at the history of sanitation in early India, one will find it to be the exact opposite to the present conditions. Our oldest civilization, Harappan civilization, is known for its proper drainage and sanitation facilities. However, during the Vedic civilization, the practice of open defecation started as they did not know the art of sewerage system, initially. During the Mauryan and post-Mauryan empire, we again had proper sanitation facilities but after that we again started the practice of open defecation and that is continuing till now.[6]

Open defection is mainly due to the lack of toilets which is largely the result of poverty; however, it is not the only reason. Many countries which have very less economy as compared to India like Bangladesh, Afghanistan and other Sub- Saharan countries have done much better in the sanitation drive. If we take the case of India itself, Haryana which is economically very developed has very high rate of open defecation. This leads to the conclusion that open defecation is also because of the lack of awareness, cultural practices, behavioral attitudes etc.

Many great leaders have actually realized the importance of the subject matter. The father of nation, Mahatma Gandhi, said that sanitation was more important than the independence. Jairam Ramesh also considered toilets more important than temples. And recently, our new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, made it a part of the Independence Day speech thus showing the intentions of the new govt. to have an open defecation free country by having a nationwide campaign called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Sanitation is a State subject. So, there is no law on it. The Centre has rolled out different programs for making the country open defecation free. The first such programme was Central Rural Sanitation Programme in 1986 which was geared for constructing toilets in India. However, it did not lead to any much success.

Therefore, in 1999, a new programme called Total Sanitation was launched which was based on the idea of demand-driven sanitation i.e. the programme emphasized on creating awareness about the harmful effects of open defecation so that there is demand from the side of the people to have more and more toilets. It also had Nirmal Gram Puraskar. This cash award was given to those villages which fulfilled the criteria given in the programme so that they could get the tag of open defecation free villages. However, in the race for getting awards and recognition, many villages over-reported the development. In 2012, the programme was revamped as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan which envisaged change through nationwide awareness campaign. Its brand ambassador was film actress, Vidya Balan. Its goal was to make India an open defecation free country by 2022.

The new govt. has launched a new programme called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan whose target is to achieve the goal by 2019, the year which will mark the 150th birth anniversary of the father of nation, who was a staunch believer of proper sanitation.[7] The new campaign has certain new features. It has National Reach Out Campaign which will aim at creating awareness among the people in whole India. It also calls for the contribution of private companies to construct more toilets as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. It will also have Annual Monitoring Programme to track down the development on the yearly basis.[8] Many companies like Larsen and Toubro, Tata Consultancy Services have already agreed to share the responsibility.

Apart from the initiatives of govt., many NGOs like Sulabh International are working very hard in this area. The UNICEF has also released a new video titled ‘Take the Poo to Loo’ to create awareness among the young population. Lots of other organization too are making great efforts.

It’s very important that both the govt. and the people come together to have this change in India. Open defecation puts big question mark on our claims of development. It is a very serious social issue which needs to be tackled very seriously and immediately. Let’s get together and give a tribute to our freedom fighters in 2019.

About the Author

Kanchan Singla

Kanchan is a second year law student at National Law University, Delhi. Out of the subjects that she has studied till now, she takes interests in criminal Law. Her hobbies include painting, watching movies, listening to songs etc.


[1] India Tops in Open Defecation, May 9, 2014, THE HINDU,

[2] Poor Sanitation Threatens Public Health, WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION 20 March 2008

[3] Giriza Shivakumar, Half of India’s Population Still Defecates in Open, Nov. 19, 2013, THE HINDU,

[4] Dean Spears and Sneha Lamba, Effects of Early- Life Exposure to Sanitation on Childhood Cognitive Skills, THE WORLD BANK SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT NETWORK WATER AND SANITATION PROGRAM UNIT (Oct 2013)

[5] Julie Mccarthy, How A Lack of Toilets Puts Indian Women at Risk of Assault, PARALLELS, 09 June, 2014

[6] Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, History of Toilets, PLUMBINGSUPPLY.COM

[7] Draft note on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, GOVT. OF INDIA, (Aug. 2014)

[8] Id.

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