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Water & Sanitation

India built toilets that its people didn't use. Now they're checking.

Narendra Modi commenced as the Prime Minister of India last May, and he was clear from the start that the people of India needed to stop defecating out in the open, and start embracing toilets.

The problem is that hundreds of millions of Indians believe that using toilets is unsanitary and inferior compared to wandering out into a field for a bit of fresh air and a squat. On one level I can see their logic, but they're wrong.

With close to 600 million Indians defecating out in the open, it actually causes environmental contamination, and the spread of preventable diseases. Yep, it actually is costing people their lives - open defecation leads to deadly diarrhoea and other intestinal diseases which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. But it's a very awkward national conversation to have in India, and Modi is the first leader to really acknowledge the elephant in the (bath)room.

He can clean up rubble with a broom, but can Narendra Modi clean up toilet time in India?

Since October - when Modi's "Toilets before temples" project really got into full swing - the Government has installed more than 500,000 new toilets for household use. Think about that number - if you laid half a million toilet cubicles end to end, they could stretch from London to Paris. Then on to Milan. It'd be like a fashion tour. Of a very long row of toilets. 

But back onto the matter at hand. Pretty quickly, the Government realised that building the toilets was only half of the solution. If a person doesn't want to use a toilet, it doesn't matter whether you build one right outside their front door; the person is still going to walk past it and off into a field. Indeed, it was reported that most of the new toilets were being used as unnecessarily sophisticated storage cupboards. Lesson learned.

So stage two of this solution clearly involves getting the people to use the toilets that the Government has built. This week, the plan has been unveiled. The Government statement included the comment "Sanitation is a mindset issue. (The aim is to) create demand by triggering behaviour change."

Coming soon to Indian toilets: toilet monitors. Yep, Indian officials will be sent to check in on the toilets and make sure that they're actually being used. Using mobile phones and tablets, the officials will upload the data onto a website in real time.

Will the new toilet monitoring scheme get the results that Modi is looking for? Time will tell  whether the government officials can pressure the people to ascend to their porcelain thrones, or whether it requires a gradual process of health and behavioural education. It's really important that the Government succeeds - improving public health and environmental conditions across India is a central element to overcoming the extreme poverty that still exists in the country. Toilets matter; they save lives.


Michael Wilson