When I drove into a small village in Rajgir, in Bihar, India, last month, it looked like a typical village. Narrow dirt roads carved out spaces between huts where families lived. As we walked down the main street through the centre of the village, we reached a large open courtyard where the whole village were gathered. Clothes hung out to dry on lines strung between buildings. Open fields and spaces surrounding the village gave an airiness to the space.

What I didn’t know then was that those fields served as massive toilets for many of the residents there. Like many villages across India, open defecation — literally going to the bathroom out in the open without any proper waste management system — is practiced by a majority of its residents.

Our team — we partnered with the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) — was in India to campaign on the issues surrounding clean water and proper sanitation.

Open defecation falls in the direct center of those two. You don’t provide proper toilets, people have no other choice but to go out in the open, and risk contamination of their water supply. But if we were going to advocate for people to change their ways, we first had to understand it.

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The village of Rajgir.
Image: Jay Gunning / Global Citizen

We visited Bihar because it’s seen as a “battleground” state in India when it comes to the provision of basic sanitation services to poor and marginalized people. One of the things that struck me most about Bihar is its sheer population — an estimated 110 million people live there. That’s like throwing one third of the population of the whole US into a state the size of Ohio. So reaching and providing the facilities for a population of that size isn’t exactly an easy task.

But in Bihar — like many states of India — the provision of toilets alone is not where the issue ends. Even in areas where the government have constructed toilets, people aren’t using them. Our trip to Bihar gave us a small glimpse into why this is, and it can be overcome.

WSSCC use an approach called community-led total sanitation — the idea being that the community are helped to realise the implications of open defecation themselves and in turn develop the leadership to change the situation without external help.

"Triggering" spurs the beginning of Community Led Total Sanitation.
Image: Jay Gunning / Global Citizen

We were there to attend an exercise called “triggering” which seeks to help the community analyze their sanitation behaviors and realize the impact this has on health and socio-economic development.

When we arrived, the whole community were gathered outside the village community center — the session kicked off with the community facilitator asking for a volunteer to map out the village using chalk in the large open space in front of them all.

After much heckling from the crowd over which lane went where, a new color of chalk was introduced to highlight all the community areas — schools, places of worship, doctors' houses, etc. Finally, the facilitator asked the volunteers to use a red color to highlight all the places where people go to the bathroom.

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Shockingly (and worryingly, given where we were sitting) this was almost everywhere and almost always close to the main community areas. This village did have a number of government built toilets, however as shown through the exercise — these were not being used.

For sanitation efforts to be effective, the entire village community must get engaged.
Image: Jay Gunning / Global Citizen

Midway through the mapping, the facilitator dropped shit — literally — into the middle of the map over one of the areas identified as an open defecation zone.

Acting as though it wasn’t there, the facilitator then continued, asking the men whether they felt comfortable about their wives and daughters having to go to the bathroom alone in the open at night. He joked with the crowd, asking them to name all the different words they use for “shit,” which was met with much giggling particularly from the ladies side of the audience.

As he continued to talk however, more and more flies gathered on the now very real open defecation zone on the map, which he finally decided to address.

He explained how these flies will next go onto their fruit at the market, they’ll land on their hands, they fly into their faces. He provoked the crowd, asking “do you really want to eat this man’s shit? Or would you rather eat your own shit?”

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Next he moved on and joked that they were only making the doctors richer and the village poorer by not breaking the cycle of disease. The mood in the audience started to shift at this stage and you could see the audience suddenly start to take this seriously.

Facilitators use chalk to visualize the problem.
Image: Jay Gunning / Global Citizen

At the end of the exercise, the facilitator asked the crowd to take a pledge to end open defecation. Both men and women stood forward and took on this ownership. While this triggering exercise alone does not guarantee behaviour change, it is a crucial first step in communities leading their own path to being open defecation free which we saw first hand at our next community visit.

About an hour down the road, we were invited into a village celebrating its open defecation free status. This village had been “triggered” two years previously and had since been working as a community to build their own sanitation facilities. It was here that the facilitator explained that many of the women had been so moved during the triggering in their village that they sold their jewelry in order to build toilet facilities for the village. These women then became the champions throughout the community to lead the educational process of why these toilets must be used.

Back in September this year at the Global Citizen Festival in New York, the Netherlands announced a $50 million investment to WSSCC as part of their plan to reach 50 million people with better sanitation. Seeing the work of WSSCC brought this to life and demonstrated why we need more than commitments to build toilets, but need to empower communities to collectively analyze the issue and find their own solutions.


Defeat Poverty

This Jarring Tactic Is Helping End Open Defecation in India

By Caroline Dollman