Discovering sanitation realities through rural immersions

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At the end of last year the CLTS Knowledge Hub heard that the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indore, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Government of Madhya Pradesh, were sending 630 of their first year management students to spend a week living in 157 open defecation free (ODF) villages. The villages cut across 13 districts in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh. Students were asked to verify ODF status of villages through a household survey and early morning and evening inspections of open defecation sites. They were also tasked with collecting data on school and Anganwadi (child and mother care) centres sanitation and handwashing facilities. The sheer number of people involved was impressive in itself as was the level of detail that could be collected in the length of time they were able to spend there. Furthermore, the fact that they would be staying overnight meant that they would be in the villages at the times when open defecation was most common, early in the morning and later in the evening. Needless to say we were excited to hear not only about their findings but also the process and methodology.

On a recent trip to India we had the opportunity to visit the Institute and discuss with staff members and a small proportion of the students their findings and experiences in the villages. Of the 157 villages visited, 24 were ODF at the time of the visits. Though a very small number of villages had not been officially verified by government as ODF the vast majority had been. Many households did not have access to toilets and others did not consistently use toilets. Reasons for this included:

  • Water shortages: Toilets are seen to increase household water requirements. People believe that large amounts of water are needed to clean latrines so would prefer to openly defecate to save the hassle of collecting more water
  • Age differences: The elderly and children continue to practice open defecation even when other household members are using toilets. Baby faeces are also disposed of incorrectly in many villages.
  • Intra-household conflicts: Brothers may ban bothers, sons may ban fathers, mothers-in-law may ban daughters-in-law etc. from using toilets.
  • Pit filling rates: Households fear that 4*4*4 pits are not adequate and instead want septic tanks. They believe that the 12,000 rupee incentive is not high enough to construct a proper septic tank and that government should also should provide funds for construction and maintenance. 
  • Eligibility: Those entitled to the incentive but still without toilets are not always building them.
  • Unlisted families: Information is not up-to-date and some households were not listed on official records. When speaking to a student at IIM they said that in their village it was the lower castes that were not registered.
  • Delays to the incentive: Those entitled to the incentive but who were yet to start construction were being put off by witnessing long delays for the government to release money to other households in the village.
  • Migrant labourers: Unlisted non-native permanent residents, seasonal workers and nomadic communities often lacked access to sanitation facilities.

The reasons given confirm earlier work by a number of different people (for example Barnard et al, 2013; Coffey et al. 2014; Chambers and Myers; 2016; Gupta et al., 2016 and others) and the information gathered is not earth shattering per se. However, the ability to collect data quickly and present back to government and/or development partners has the potential to be replicated across India and in other countries across the world and could be an important methodology for rapid action learning at scale – something that could greatly benefit the Swachh Bharat Mission. 

Management students with no prior knowledge of the challenges of rural sanitation programming and no experience of rural life were able to learn, reflect on and develop a strong understanding of the ground realities over a period of five days – something that can normally take months of reading and research. The process seems to be a time and cost effective way of getting people new to the sector up to speed on the barriers and opportunities of implementing sanitation programmes. This is even more important in the Indian context where the complexity of the challenges are greater than anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, the collected information was presented back to the district and state government and UNICEF making it mutually beneficial for student learning and the Swachh Bharat Mission. Though in this case it was management students who took part, the potential learning for those who study social work, development or WASH-related subjects is immense. We encourage other universities, colleges and institutes to explore the possibility of using a similar methodology with their students as the benefits seem high for all parties involved.

Jamie Myers is a Research Officer for the CLTS Knowledge Hub at IDS.

Date: 29 March 2017


Submitted by Pemberai Zambezi (not verified) on

  is the methodology used  some form of observation  inclined  to  anthropology?