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Open Defecation in India: A Reflection on Cultural, Political and Gender Dimensions

Sabu K U

“Open defecation?” frowning at the screen I said to myself “Is it a topic for public discussion?” I didn’t know where to put myself. I found the facts and figures and the pictures that appeared on the screen mind-boggling.

My God!!!? See……. a man, crouching behind the bush and there is shit and dirt all over the places. I looked at Mr. Prahlad with a hangdog expression. “What a shit subject man”I thought to myself, as I continued to watch Mr. Prahlad, trainer in sanitation and research assistant in SOCHARA present his field experiences related to open defecation. Mr Prahlad wastotally immersed in the topic and continues in his inimitable effervescent style. As more and more field photos and videos of shit appeared on the screen, I almost started to smell shit in the room.

But, honestly I knew open defecation is not an uncommon thing in my country, and it is a huge public health problem. To me, it is an infringement of human dignity. I have seen several times street children squatting near the railway lane defecating. That is a usual sight in our long haul of train journey, and my eyes have become so immune to it. But, behind the smokescreen of conventionality I never tried to discuss the topic with anyone. My two years of experience in SOCHARA were punctuated with several events of small presentations to full day discussions and week-long workshops on the issue of poor sanitation in India. My camaraderie with Mr. Prahlad made me realise the urgency for discussing this topic  in public forum. The unpleasantness and unpopularity of the topic may have prompted my initial repulsion. This is perhaps also one of the main reasons for neglect of the problem by media and academia. .

Despite the fact that 53% of the households (69% in rural) do not have toilet facilities in India as per the census of 2011, what struck me in those days was the thought  of violence inflicted on the women and young girls in the absence of toilet facilities in the household premises. The sharing of field work by Mr. Ganesh (a Community Health Fellow) and his report lingered in my mind and I began to understand the gender dimension of the problem. Because of the complex biological function of women, a secure and clean toilet is more of a requirement for women than for men. More than men it is women who suffer the indignity of defecating in the open. However, in the patriarchal social structure, where the men are the decision makers in the family, toilets do not get  priority. The absence of clean and safe toilet increases the risk of physical and psychological disadvantage for women that further reinforces the gender inequalities in our society. For instance, as the report of Mr. Ganesh pointed out, the female children from their adolescent age try to eat less or drink less water for the fear of using open public space during the day time which may cause lot of embarrassment. Again going to open space for defecation even at night causes worries about dog’s and other wild animal attack, and the danger of being sexually abused. It also should be noted that in states like Kerala where women have a better educational status and decision making power the also has the lowest prevalence of open defecation in India.

When I heard Prime Minister  Modi’s election  slogan “Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya” (toilet first, temple later), I became hopeful. Finally the silence was broken and the issue of toilets was going to be the subject of public debate. But my excitement was short-lived. Though Prime Minister Modi could be credited for bringing the issue to the limelight, his efforts to construct millions of toilets is not sufficient to solve the problem of poor sanitation in India. Similar attempts by Mr. Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat – the Nirmal Gujarat Programme – does not seem to have yielded the desired result. Almost half of Gujarat’s households (47.3%) do not have toilets (Census, 2011).

Despite India’s rapid economic development, we have not internalized the civic sense of keeping  public spaces clean. Instead the caste, class, and gender superiority allowed us to litter in t public spaces and put the responsibility of cleaning it on to a  particular group of lower caste people. The use of dry latrine in many parts of our country is a clear instance of this. A study conducted by Spears and Thorat, (2015) shows that households  in villages where the practice of untouchability was more prevalent also had higher chances of practicing open defecation. This is very much related to the concept of purity and pollution. In our culture, certain things such as human excreta and menstrual cloths etc are considered both physically and ritually polluting and the avoidance of pollution and the promotion of purity with respect to once private place are more valued than in the public place (Coffey, 2014).

In many rural villages in India disposing shit in the premises of houses is polluting their house and it is a dishonor for their deity and hence it has to be disposed away from the houses. The cultural meaning attached to the use of open defecation varies widely. In some of the rural parts of North India people does not prefer constructing toilet and using it, and some of them believe that open defecation is a healthy practice that rising in early in the morning and being industrious and exposure to morning fresh air is healthier than using toilet. In some cases people don’t use toilet due to lack of water and poor maintenance (Coffey, 2014). So there is heterogeneity of factors associated with poor sanitation in India. The current political effort to improve the sanitation condition by building millions of toilets will not yield the desired result. Unless we address the underlying issues of caste and patriarchal social structure and understand the context specific social dynamics that affect the sanitation practice and develop appropriate action plan, the current efforts will be just a band-aide solution for a severely lacerated wound.


Coffey D (2014) Culture, religion and open defecation in rural north India.Ideas For India: For More Evidenced Based Policy.

Spears D and Thorat A (2015) Caste, purity, and pollution and the puzzle of open defecation in India: Evidence from a novel measure in a nationally-representative survey. Available from: https://paa.confex.com/paa/2016/mediafile/ExtendedAbstract/Paper5670/unt… (accessed 1 July 2016).