The Puzzle of Open Defecation: Why Do Indian Households Not Build Toilets?

By Sonalde B. Desai, Dinesh Kumar Tiwari, Dirk Parham and Michael Paolisso

There is a puzzle surrounding the practice of open defecation in India: why has there been so little change in this practice in spite of the enormous programmatic and financial investment from the Indian government? Researchers used the India Human Development Survey’s (IHDS) panel dataset to understand the decision making process behind building toilets. IHDS 2004-5 survey finds that 19,785 households did not have toilets. In 2011-12 it was found that the same households constructed toilets by 2011-12. Principal component analysis was done to observe the grouping of various factors. Logistic regression was also used controlling for per capita household income in both rounds, asset ownership in Round 1, household size and place of residence.

We found that toilets were more likely to be built when the households saw itself as a modern, middle class family. Even though subsidies are given to poor households and households from lower castes, these households are the least likely to build toilets. Other household factors that make toilets more likely to be built are households having elderly or disabled individuals and households who believe surrounding areas are unsafe for women. Surprisingly, there was no association in the data between toilet construction and women’s empowerment. Women having decision making power in the household did not translate into more toilets being built. Finally, households close to a water source or living in areas where water table is close to the surface seem to be less likely to build toilets which leads the researchers to believe households resist one-size-fits-all government toilets that may pollute their water source.

Cognitive anthropological approach was used to understand the mindset of the people with regards to toilets. People from urban slums and villages were asked to participate in an experiment and each respondent was asked to give one word that was associated with toilets for them and then the words were sorted into piles by respondents and then analyzed using Anthropac. Key Words: Smelly 7, Water 5, Facility 5, Hygienic or Unhygienic 5, Cleanliness (Cleanness, etc.) 5, Safety (Women’s) 4, Necessity 4, Lack of space 3, Comfortable 3, Convenient 3 The cognitive experiment result revealed a strong belief in keeping the home separate from outside. It means that air vents from indoor toilets would allow polluted air into the living space and many households feel that would be unclean. In sum, future policy endeavors should aim to propose toilet models that suit the environmental conditions, work to emphasize the relationship between toilet construction and the positive self-image of the household, and address the household as a whole, not solely focusing on the women of the house. For more information, go to