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Sanitation Crisis in India: An Essay

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Basic sanitation is recognized by the United Nations as a human right which allows for the proper development of human capital (NewSun, 2015). India is currently categorized as the ‘fastest-growing major economy’ in the world (V, 2018), yet is also labelled as a country with an ‘out-of-control rape epidemic’ (Khan, 2016). Reasons for this can be directly linked to the fact that massive portions of its population, notably, the 70% living in rural villages (The Associated Press, 2015), a majority of which do not have access to clean toilets or in fact, any toilets. This results in more than half of India’s population to defecate either out in the open or in a parasite-infected public toilet. Of particular concern is that lack of toilets has forced women to travel during the unsafe hours of the night or before the sun rises to defecate. Which not only puts them at risk for assault and rape but also exposes them to a multitude of infections. The Indian Government has put forth multiple campaigns in order to address these issues such as the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign along with working with the United Nations to fulfil the UN’s SDG’s. However, women’s well-being, unsanitary conditions and inequality still need to be addressed in order for India as a whole to win this war against open defecation.


Open defecation refers to the process where an individual travels to fields, bushes, railway tracks or a remote open area to relieve themselves due to having no access to a toilet (, n.d.). The lack of access to toilets, especially in India has been highlighted in the Joint Monitoring Program for Water and Sanitation in 2015 by the World Health Organization, where it was discovered that 39.84% of India’s population still took part in open defecation. Despite this being a huge reduction from 65.97% in 2000, it still is a human rights violation as a large percent of the population do not have access to sanitary conditions. Shockingly, India has the third largest number of billionaires in the world, but also 250 million people with ‘zero assets’ (George, 2016) which puts emphasis on how such stark inequality exists within a country that is the 10th most sizably voluminous economy in the world (Gobal, 2015). According to Gobal (2015), this may be attributed to the caste system which still contributes to the inequality between the poor and the rich in India, and makes these 250 million people an easy target for exploitation.

Tragically, women in rural areas and slums are the ones who are exploited the most. As reported in a news article, about 300 million women and girls in India defecate in the open and if they had access to toilets “some 400 women would have escaped rape” in 2013, according to a senior police official in Bihar (Biswas, 2014). Due to lack of political will, along with failure to put the necessary policies into practice, women are being forced to go out in the middle of the night and “are in constant fear” of not only being watched but assaulted and raped (Lennon, 2011).

In an attempt to curb the injustices in access to basic sanitary facilities, India’s Prime Minister Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission or the Clean India Mission in October 2014 with the main aim of providing sanitary facilities across all of India, especially rural areas (Phukan, 2014). Reportedly, the Clean India Campaign has employed a workforce of three million government employees who are directly or indirectly attached to the program (Khan, 2017). However, this is not a reflection of the effectiveness of the Swachh Bharat Mission as, evidence suggests it came at huge costs to those in rural areas. An investigation carried out by a nonprofit organization, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), found that the poorest families in cities such as Madhya Pradesh and Indore were cheated into paying for toilets to be installed in their houses, only to have their houses be demolished (Shantha, 2017). This was done because those toilet free houses ‘couldn’t be allowed to affect’ the Swachh Survekhshan (assessment) report ordered by the Ministry of Urban Development (Shantha, 2017). Significantly highlighting how the low-income communities are victims due to the unequal access to sanitary conditions.


A country which is working towards superpower status has nuclear weapons and space programs in place, should ironically not continue to have nearly half of its population defecating out in the open due to lack of toilets. This problem has huge impacts, not only on the physical health of women and children but also their mental health (Lennon, 2011). A study in 2016 used non-partner sexual violence (NPSV) data to analyze the relationship between sanitation facilities and women at risk of non-partner sexual assault and found that “women who use open defecation are twice as likely to face NPSV as women with a household toilet” (Jhadav, Weitzman & Smith-Greenaway, 2016). Another such study conducted in 2011 by WaterAid reported several incidents of girls under the age of 10 being raped and assaulted while on their way to defecate in the open (Biswas, 2014).

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Aside from rape, the intent of robbing women, teasing and photographing women without their consent are all common practices in urban and rural slums of India during the night while women try to find a public toilet or bushes (Lennon, 2011). Mothers have also reported having to have ‘one-on-one fights with thugs’ in order to protect their daughters by putting themselves in the line of death each time they are on the way to use a public toilet (Biswas, 2014). Alarmingly, lack of toilets in India has not only been linked to the stunted growth of Indian children (Jones, 2016) but also pollution of water bodies which leads to cholera, typhoid, diarrhea (U & Suresh Babu 2017: 6) and adverse pregnancy outcomes (Padhi et al., 2015). Such life-threatening conditions are a reflection of the obstacles that India faces in efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals of a good health and well-being, sanitation and reduced inequalities.

In 1999 the Government of India had taken the ambitious initiative and launched India’s Total Sanitation Campaign with the aim of ending open defecation by 2012 (Arnold et al, 2014). However, by 2012, 59.4% of rural households and 8.8% of urban houses were still without latrines as the data below suggests (Bansal, 2016). The years following 2012 showed a growing awareness of the sad reality of open defecation and further led to campaigns such as the launch of ‘Poo2Loo’ by UNICEF, targeting the practice of open defecation and waste dumping (McGrath, 2014). Local governments also began to contribute, such as in the City of Haryana where the ‘No Toilet, No Bride’ campaign started in an attempt to improve sanitation in Haryana’s villages. Here, the girls would demand a toilet to be built in the groom’s house before agreeing to marry him (Balasubramanian, 2017). Finally, in 2014 PM Modi launched the country’s most aggressive sanitation drive ever with the goal being to eradicate open defecation and build millions of toilets (Lu, 2017). But despite having built 85.5 million toilets (Sengupta, 2018), critics of this campaign point out that there may be more emphasis on image than deed (Gettleman, 2017). Sources suggest that new toilets are being built, however, because of the urgency around building these, most of the latrines are in unusable conditions, with some being ‘fly-ridden and stinky’ and others with no connections to proper sewerage systems (Gettleman, 2017).

Contrary to the successes of PM Modi’s campaign being reported and celebrated by influential people such as Bill Gates, investigation and research by the Accountability Initiative at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi explains otherwise. It reveals that there is no monitoring or verification system in place; with duplicate entries being reported to local leaders, who then report incorrect data to national officials, pit latrines overflowing due to construction flaws and that there is a lack of effort in replacing and maintaining these latrines (Lu, 2017). Overall, suggesting a ‘big disconnect’ (Lu, 2017) between what is being reported and what the actual reality is. Moreover, despite India’s commitment to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it has yet to ensure (Goals 3, 5, 6 and 10) the healthy lives and promote well-being of its citizens, achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and lastly, in relation to this case study, improve sanitation along with reducing inequalities.


This sanitation crisis is indeed a burden on the Indian economy as only ‘9000 crore’ – equivalent to US$ 1.24 billion in 2016 (The Times of India, 2016) had been allocated to the Swachh Bharat Campaign. Having invested these resources into the biggest sanitation drive in the country did not yield the expected results. Therefore, the importance of building toilets is highlighted, but at the same time, educating those from rural areas of its importance and the need for regular maintenance. For instance, some villagers “found their toilets so useless they used the stalls for storing crops instead”, as reported by Lu (2017). A further problem which needs to be overcome is one concerning women and their specific sanitation conditions, which the Government of India needs to incorporate into their goals. However, this may be difficult as India still remains a country where periods are associated with shame (Cullet, 2017). An important question now to think about is whether the sanitation problem especially concerning women will be included in future political agendas in India? Will the government be able to overcome the traditional mindsets of the majority of the population around the lifestyle changes which are necessary to be healthier? And if not, then what will be the consequences?

Amongst the numerous issues with the Prime Minister’s campaign, primarily being the authority given to those who are responsible for public sanitation, who in most cases are ‘underpowered legally, financially and administratively’ (Jeffrey, 2016). It only makes sense that these individuals who are under immense pressure from higher authorities to meet open defecation free deadlines have been involved in false reporting along with badly constructed and unhygienic latrine pits. Hence, a way to solve this problem may be to focus on the toilet demand from the actual areas in India, rather than from politicians who are eager to show that their campaigns are a success. As many families have taken out loans with outrageous interest rates to construct toilets that are beyond their means, that may not be usable and may never be used, the government’s job is therefore not to enforce, rather enlighten. Lastly, the Swachh Bharat’s implementation can be used as a great example when looking at the kind of scale at which reform in relation to healthcare in India is needed, but in regards to protecting the women of India and providing them with better sanitation, the Government of India has a long way to go and lots to achieve.

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Sanitation Crisis in India: An Essay. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
“Sanitation Crisis in India: An Essay.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022,
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