Toilets in Rural Karnataka – A peer effect?

In my previous post, I had taken a look at how sanitation improved in rural Karnataka and India over the decade of 2001 to 2011. Three broad categories of districts had emerged in Karnataka, and a relationship was visible between a district’s starting position on toilet ownership and how well it improved.

Going by the spirit that drove the previous analysis, I go a level deeper and more granular, and take a look at Karnataka’s taluks (or sub-district units) to see how things are changing in rural sanitation.

Karnataka Rural Sanitation - Improvement in Districts and Taluks

The above graph tries to see just that: where taluks and districts were in 2001, and how much they improved over 2001-2011. It is immediately apparent that taluks follow the districts of Karnataka in their behaviour: there again appears to be a strong link between where a taluk is starting from in terms of toilet ownership, and how much it has improved in the past 10 years.

If we simplify the first graphic by removing the district data points,  the positions of all 176 taluks of Karnataka are more clearly visible.

Karnataka Rural Sanitation - Sanitation Trap

What one can see is that when the starting point of a taluk is below 15% toilet ownership, the improvements are never phenomenal. When the starting point crosses about 20%, many more high performers become visible. It is possible that taluks and districts have to get out of a “poor sanitation trap” before being able to improve significantly.

Complementing the trend, every district that started with 40% toilet ownership or higher, improved by at least 20 percentage points, underscoring the relationship between the two. While the trends are easy enough to visualise and comprehend, the reasons for them may be complex and difficult to be certain of.

One reason for this link between starting position and improvement in sanitation could be the peer effect. The peer effect is where someone’s behaviour is influenced by those around them. It has been well studied in the field of education, where it’s been found that a student’s educational outcome is strongly linked to his or her peer group and the group of friends. ‘Peer pressure’  is a form of this as well, although mostly with negative connotations, where people pick up habits and mannerisms from their peers.

Coming to toilets in Karnataka, imagine the 15-20% mark: it’s where 1 in 6 or 1 in 5 houses have a toilet. At those numbers, most people have a neighbour who owns a toilet and uses it. People who are still defecating in the open can not only imagine, but also see what the benefits and comforts of owning a toilet can do. Possibly, even the transition to using toilets (and cleaning them!) can become easier as people can learn from each other. Toilets also possibly become aspirational objects – in effect nudging more households to avail what subsidies come their way.

An alternate reason could be a lot more mundane: the link could simply be a result of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar award and the programmatic design of the government’s total sanitation campaign. A large focus of the campaign was to take villages that were doing reasonably well on sanitation – and push them to near-complete toilet ownership, making them “Open Defecation Free” (at least in theory). Here, individual toilet subsidies were coupled with a cash award to villages (and their panchayats) which managed to go open-defecation-free. While it is possible for the NGP to have had an effect on the correlation, it is unlikely that it can explain it entirely.

One way to decide between the two (and other!) possible reasons for the pattern of rural sanitation improvement is to go deeper once more look at it at the habitation level – at villages and hamlets and how they improved. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible with Census data. Either way, these results have a significant bearing on how we can improve rural sanitation in the coming decade, where we have to achieve a high, sustained improvement in sanitation but with reasonable public investment.

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

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