Nepal and India declared open defecation free (ODF) status last week, but the legitimacy of their claims is in question.
ODF is achieved when whole communities shift to using toilets instead of open defecation — the practice whereby people go in fields, bushes, forests, open bodies of water, or other open spaces to defecate.
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli announced that the country is ODF on Sept. 30, at an event organized by the Ministry of Water Supply. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country met its Swachh Bharat Mission goal to end open defecation on Oct. 2, at an event for village workers in Ahmedabad.
However, some communities still don’t have access to safe toilets and continue to defecate in the open in both countries, according to residents and experts on the ground.
"The Picture Is Different on the Ground"
The Nepalese government said at least one toilet has been built in over 5.6 million households, and all 753 local units of 77 districts in the country are now ODF. The number of toilets installed is even higher than originally reported, and has increased since Sept. 30, according to Water Supply Ministry spokesperson Ritesh Kumar Shakya.
Nepal originally pledged to declare its ODF status by 2017 at the 2015 Global Citizen Festival in New York. The country adopted a plan that promoted behavior change and universal toilet coverage, but a devastating earthquake hit on April 25, 2015, destroying 90% of structures, and stalled progress.
One activist and journalist, Bhola Paswan, who has reported on ODF in Nepal’s Tarai region, is skeptical of Nepal’s ODF status. Paswan told Eleven Myanmar that the government rushed the announcement.
“The ODF status is more on paper but the picture is different on the ground,” Paswan said. “The government had to show its progress to various donor agencies.”
Having worked in the WASH sector globally & being from Nepal, I can confidently say that this 'ODF free nation' declaration is beyond farcical. I urge especially experts to refrain from congratulations! It doesn't look good. Lots of progress - Yes but still some way to go— Pankaj (@meltingeverest) October 2, 2019
Nepal’s government declared the country as ODF two days before India was set to announce itself ODF on Oct. 2, Eleven Myanmar pointed out. However, many people continue to defecate in the open in the Tarai region because they do not have the financial means to build toilets in their homes, resident Balkrishna Mushar said.
Shakya said Nepal did not make its announcement prematurely to become the first country in South Asia to achieve ODF status.
Sanitation facilities safely separate human waste from human contact, but when people defecate in the open, exposed human waste is transferred back into people’s food and water resources. The use of contaminated drinking water and poor sanitary conditions result in increased vulnerability to deadly water-borne diseases.
Prime Minister Oli said ending open defecation will promote better health and well-being, reduce medical expenses, reduce disease and the mortality rate, and increase life expectancy. Now the Nepalese government will focus on ending poverty, eliminating illiteracy, and helping Nepal become a developed country.
Putting the Announcements in Perspective
Modi shared India’s ODF news on Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birthday anniversary, a day the Indian government dedicated to its sanitation goals.
"In 60 months, 600 million people have been given access to toilets, more than 110 million toilets have been built,” Modi said on Oct. 2 in Ahmedabad city, according to Al Jazeera. “The whole world is amazed to hear this."
Indian residents also claim open defecation is more prevalent than the government presented to the public last week. Despite the government’s report, there’s only one community toilet with 10 latrines for 800 people in New Delhi's Rama Krishna Puram area, social worker Dimple Peter told Al Jazeera.
The Indian government has put its focus on building toilets rather than investing in behavior change to ensure people actually use them, according to Nazar Khalid, a research fellow at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE).
"We need to appreciate that this government has made sanitation a big priority, which has not happened in the past," Khalid told CNN. "But this is such a big farce because open defecation by no means has been eliminated."
Parameswaran Iyer, secretary of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, told India Today that individuals who live in communities where open defecation is still practiced must reach out, and assistance will be provided until they become ODF.