India Is Building New Toilets Every Second—but Hardly Anyone Is Using Them

In the country with the world’s biggest open-defecation problem, why do people prefer to poop outdoors?

(Photo: Reuters)

Aug 13, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Faced with what you could plausibly call the world’s biggest pile of crap—the feces left behind every day by the 600 million people in India who defecate outdoors—the recently installed government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched a campaign to build 5.3 million latrines by the end of August. That’s one per second. Trouble is, countless Indians still prefer to poop in the fields and on riverbanks, like they always have.

As Bloomberg’s Kartikay Mehrotra reports, many rural folks find the idea of defecating where they live disgusting. “Feces don’t belong under the same roof as where we eat and sleep,” one woman tells Mehrotra, explaining why she and pretty much everyone else in her village do their business in a field, despite her new government-installed toilet. “Locking us inside these booths with our own filth? I will never see how that is clean.”

Open defecation is a colossal public health problem in many countries, but it’s especially acute in India, where as much as half the population lacks access to toilets. Excrement contaminates drinking water, spreading diseases such as diarrhea, which kills some 600,000 Indians every year—many of them children. Girls and women are also assaulted on their way to distant fields; in May, two girls heading home after defecating outside were raped and hanged from a mango tree.

Nonetheless, a survey of rural households by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics finds that most people who own government-provided toilets don’t use them. The key issue, the researchers say, isn’t supply; it’s demand. Indians need to be much better educated about why they should be using latrines.

The good news is that great progress is being made on this problem. In the last 20 years, the percentage of people defecating outdoors worldwide has dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent. Want to know more? We took a close look at the issue in our recent series “Insanitation.”