Toilets and access

The National Sample Survey Office released new findings this week from the 69th round of the National Sample Survey conducted in 2012, providing the latest state-level data on sanitation, water supply and electricity access.

The last set of reliable numbers on rural sanitation came from the 2011 census, where we found that about 30.7 percent of rural Indian households had their own toilets in 2010. As covered by The Transition State, this had improved in the previous decade by about 9 percentage points.

Broadly consistent with that rate of increase, the NSS round from 2012 reports that 31.9 percent of rural households had their own toilets in 2012, an increase of ~1.2 percent in two years. What the NSS press release dwells on at greater length is the number of rural households with access to toilets, which is a significantly greater number in most Indian states.

This access is self-reported by surveyed households and can mean that they share or use a neighbour’s toilet, have access to a community/public toilet or perhaps have access at their workplace, especially if they live close to towns and cities. However, the access data is likely an overestimate as there is nothing to prove that every member of the household avails the use of toilets, or uses them all the time.

Nationally, 40.6 percent rural households have access to toilets, as opposed to about 31.9 percent of them owning or having exclusive access to toilets. Since there is a two year lag between the two data points collected (as shown below for all states) this gap can be treated as a minor overestimate.

Toilets vs Access2

As one can see, there is a phenomenal range of differences between households owning toilets and households having access to them. A state like Karnataka has almost no difference, implying that toilets are treated as private, household goods in the southern state. Meghalaya is the other extreme, where the number of households with access to toilets is almost double the number of households who own them. If only access were to be measured, states like Nagaland, Delhi, Sikkim, Mizoram and others could declare themselves to be free of open defecation today.

The chart below illustrates the difference between the ranking of states on rural sanitation between the two measures.

Toilets vs Access

As one can see, most of the change happens in states with higher toilet ownership. Delhi, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are the biggest gainers when access is considered, with Kerala, Manipur, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh losing the most ground.

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22 Responses to Toilets and access

  1. Balaji (@balajiworld) December 27, 2013 at 11:12 AM #

    Interesting numbers for Delhi and other urbanized smaller states. Perhaps this vindicates the assumption that shared toilets work better in urban areas than in rural areas.

    Pavan, what do you think is the learning with regard to our team’s proposal (at the GCPP workshop) to build 7 lakh public toilets. Can you also comment on the Rural Sanitation program which seems to predominately target rural households to build their own toilets.

    • Pavan Srinath January 7, 2014 at 2:20 AM #

      I have deep misgivings about the data, Balaji. People in the know are wholly skeptical about claims of 100% coverage in any state. Key thing to note is that “toilet access” is a very soft number, and is a question that needs to be investigated very cleverly to not get biased answers. My current hypothesis is that in places with high toilet ownership, those without toilets are more reluctant at admitting that they do not use it.

      In my time looking at sanitation, I have found little evidence of shared toilets working at a macro level. Individual instances of NGOs and others making shared toilets work in rural areas are certainly abundant and legitimate, but the numbers don’t quite add up. (Caveat – my experience is more South India-centric, where the numbers also back this up).

      There are three types of “public toilets” – a truly public toilet anyone can walk into, a shared toilet between a few households, and community toilets shared by a large resident locality. By and large public toilets of all three types do not work in urban India, and where they do – rather sub-optimally. Many have made them work, but not in a way that is amenable to government intervention nor one with any known ways of scaleability. From what I understand the experience is the same in rural India.

      The key idea which a private toilet gets right is that it enables ownership. My toilet is MY asset, just like my house. And that ensures a lot of care, if ownership is genuine. The failure in the total sanitation campaign is not that they did not embrace public toilets, but in that they were unable to generate any demand for sanitation. Key is behaviour change, and not just because its good for individuals – but because one person defecating in the open affects others around them. That makes sanitation a truly public problem more than most others.