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Is WaterAid’s report on India’s toilets incorrect?

Copyright: <a href=''>ggfoto / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
A rural toilet in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh.

WaterAid claims 732 million Indians lack access to toilets. The government, however, dismisses the findings as ‘factually incorrect.’

Is basic sanitation lacking in India?

The State of the World’s Toilets Report, 2017 says India has the most people in the world without access to ‘at least basic sanitation.’ The reports claims that 40 percent of people in the country continue to practise open defecation and 56 percent of people lack decent toilets. The latter encompasses 355 million women and girls, which would place them at greater risk of sexual violence.

However, the government disputes the findings of the report. A statement by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation calls the findings ‘a total departure from reality’ and accuses WaterAid of using data which is ‘not up to date.’ Therefore, they say, ‘it misses out on much of the progress under the Swachh Bharat Mission.’

The Ministry further notes that data regarding sanitation coverage in India is publicly available. This data can be accessed here.

‘Factually incorrect and irresponsible’

What the WaterAid report misses, according to the Times of India, is the progress made since the data it uses became available in 2015. As noted by the ToI and the government, the WaterAid report draws on information in the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), which compiles data from studies carried out between 2000 and 2015.

That it does not include figures for 2016 means that the report’s findings are ‘factually incorrect and irresponsible’, according to the Times of India. The ToI writes that, as of November 2017, less than 300 million practise open defecation in India. By contrast, the WaterAid report provides the 2015 figure of more than 522 million.

The ToI further disputes the claim that 56 percent of Indians lack access to basic sanitation, claiming the figure is actually 28 percent. It notes that the JMP itself says that the information it provides in its report will likely be out of date due to not capturing the work done since 2015.

A need for honest measurement

The quality of a nation’s sanitation and the quality of a nation’s public health are inextricably linked. For many years, sanitation coverage in India has been poor. The Modi government has committed itself to reversing this. The strength of these efforts continue to be the subject of debate.

Earlier this year, it was reported that more than 3.8 crore (38 million) household toilets had been constructed under the scheme. However, one report said that almost 60 percent of toilets built under Swachh Bharat were unusable due to lacking a proper water supply. Many of the toilets constructed under Swachh Bharat are not being utilised, the survey also found, and 40 percent are not connected to a drainage system.

The success of public health initiatives must be measured honestly, using data that is both complete and up-to-date, by governments and non-government organisations alike. Change and progress cannot be meaningfully effected otherwise.

At the time of writing, WaterAid has not responded to a request for comment by Health Issues India. 

The State of the World’s Toilets Report, 2017 can be accessed here.

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