Sanitation in Rural India and Karnataka – How has the needle moved?

Sanitation is among the most dismal and depressing topics in India, across the country. While sanitation in our cities comes with its own set of problems, rural sanitation in India is stuck a primitive stage where too few people have access toilets.

To promote toilet construction in villages, a ‘Total Sanitation Campaign’ was launched by the Government of India in 1999 where subsidies were given to households to construct individual toilets. By means of the subsidy, cash incentives for village leaders and other communication campaigns, the state has tried to promote toilet construction and the need for adequate sanitation for over a decade now. As one can expect, several problems such as  inadequate subsidies, red tape, corruption, plus a lack of demand for good sanitation have all plagued the campaign.

After the Census results came out last summer, there was a major controversy as the census numbers for toilet ownership violently disagreed with numbers that the government campaign was putting out.

This post takes a look at how the needle has moved on toilets and sanitation – be it because of the government scheme or in spite of it  –  in rural India and in rural Karnataka.

As of 2001, only 21.9% of rural Indian households had toilets. After a decade, the percentage of households increased to 30.7% – an increase of less than 10 percentage points. Below is a graph of how toilet ownership has improved across all states of India, arranged in an ascending order based on how things were in 2011.

Sanitation in Rural India - The Transition State

While Kerala, Manipur, Mizoram and Sikkim are states that are ahead of the rest on rural toilet ownership, it is important to note that Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim and Goa have improved the most in toilet ownership between 2001 and 2011. It is also interesting to note that relatively well-off states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka actually fall below the national average, with Andhra Pradesh barely doing better.

The above performance, however, has been talked of quite a few times by journalists, policymakers and other sectoral experts. To really understand how rural sanitation is improving, one needs to dig deeper and go more granular. This blog makes a preliminary attempt at doing so by looking at all the districts of the southern state of Karnataka.

As shown in the graph above, toilet ownership in rural Karnataka increased from 17.4% in 2001 to 28.4% in 2011. The spread of this growth across districts can be seen in the graph below.

Sanitation in Rural Karnataka - The Transition State

At the district level, a lot of fascinating trends emerge. Firstly, there’s a curious change in the gross “shape” of the graph, compared to the first graph of states. There appear to be three distinct types of districts in 2011: the poor, the middling, and the stellar performers.

The poor performers are the bottom 10-15 districts, that had a low base of toilets to begin with, and improved by only a few percentage points in the last decade. The middling performers are those that had between 10 and 20% toilet ownership in 2001, and all improved by about 10 percentage points since then – similar to the state average. The third type are the stellar performers, who had more than 20% toilets to begin with, and improved significantly over the decade.

However, the most prolific district in Karnataka is undoubtedly Bangalore (Rural) making a phenomenal leap of almost 50 percentage points in toilet ownership. This performance is perhaps attributable, at least in part, to a very proactive civil servant, Manjula Naik, who was the CEO of the district Zilla Panchayat for a while.

One can also posit that how well a district improves is also incumbent on what its starting position is. It is possible that districts with about 20-30% rural toilet ownership have reached a certain stage of socio-economic development, where the prosperity, aspirations, governance quality and cluster effects of some households having toilets spurs the rest in building toilets. If that is so, then the middling districts of Karnataka – Hassan, Mysore, Mandya, Davangere, Ramanagara and Haveri are all ripe for rapid improvements in rural sanitation.

Let us hope that smarter policies and better economic growth result in far greater improvements in the coming decade.

Some of the ideas in this post came about due to several conversations with my colleague, Vijay Krishna

Notes. While this post tracks the percentage of households with individual toilets, a small portion of rural households also has access to community toilets. It is the remainder of households who continue to practice open defecation, along with a subset of the former households who may not be using their toilets.

Data used in this post are available here: States | Karnataka Districts.

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