Every day, according to the World Health Organization, over a billion people in India evacuate their bowels, producing a great deal of waste. The problem is not what they’re doing, however, but where roughly half of them are doing it. Access to indoor plumbing in India is sparse. As a result, 600 million Indians are forced to do their business outside – behind bushes on vacant lots, or in open waterways and back alleys.
But it is more than a simple issue of limited access. Due to the long persistence of the problem, open defecation has become an ingrained norm in rural India. In many cases, people still prefer the gutter to the commode even once adequate plumbing reaches their area. Unsurprisingly, those who have been “going” in public since they were born have a difficult time accepting the toilet as a part of their lifestyle and largely don’t see the point in doing so.
Unfortunately for them, open defecation presents a dire health risk. An increased rate of hepatitis, intestinal worms, cholera, typhoid, and other infectious diseases is associated with inadequate waste systems and hygiene. An average of 2,000 children die every day of diarrhea worldwide, and open defecation was found by the WHO in 2011 to be the leading cause of diarrheal death. Children are especially vulnerable, because they walk barefoot and crawl on the ground, then put things in their mouth without washing their hands, unknowingly ingesting others’ feces. In addition to putting the children at risk of infection, it is also linked to high levels of malnutrition and stunted growth.
The issue with infection does not end at the dumping grounds. Fecal matter becomes soaked into the soil by rain, runs into waterways, and can infect wells and other sources of fresh water. This map of global human fecal concentration in the world’s demonstrates the prevalence of water contamination and highlights how serious the situation is in India specifically.
Outdoor defecation presents a unique danger to women, as well. The lack of private toilets force women and girls to leave their homes at night when nature calls, leaving them alone and vulnerable in the dark, where they are exposed to attack and rape.
There are a number of proposed and attempted solutions to combat the problem. The Indian government has the political will to do something about it – successive presidential campaigns have included public defecation as an issue – but results have been disappointing. Efforts to expand infrastructure and build toilets in India’s rural reaches, accompanied by government propaganda campaigns espousing the benefits of “going” indoors make up the bulk of this drive. Local governments have even gone as far as to pay citizens one rupee for every time they use a public toilet. More in depth analysis to the effort to combat public defecation will come in subsequent posts. Stay tuned.
(defecation is spelled wrong in the blog title. ignore that.)