Overcoming Sanitation Skepticism in India, A Question of Habit, Equality and Education

By Priska Prasetya

From the outset, I warn you. Sanitation is not the most pleasant of topics, but it is a necessary one. India has a population of 1.3 billion people. It is estimated that a half billion of that number will conduct their daily constitutional —defecate—into streams and fields and not toilets. Open defecation has been called India’s most intransigent habit. It has been like that throughout the country’s history, and this is the case even though today 94 percent of the population have toilets. 

However, many feel it is more sanitary to use the great outdoors as opposed to toilets. Some believe the toilets are poorly constructed. Mostly, though, they avoid in-door sanitation out of custom. The government, under a program called “Clean India” embarked on a campaign in 2014 to make the country more sanitation friendly. There has been progress, but there is a long way to go. 

It is imperative we create social acceptance with the farmers. We see this is happening. However, it is an educational process and takes time.

My interest is as an advisor on sanitation and solid waste management for a Dutch NGO called WASTE. I work with a veteran on-site project manager, Rajkumar Sampath of the RDO (Rural Development Organization) Trust in the Nilgiris District. Our organizations were involved in the early stages, encouraging and aiding in the supply of toilets. Now, however, our program is developing a circular economy through more progressive sanitation methods. 

The aim is not just better sanitation but to also help local farmers in the Nilgiris District, which is a popular tourist region, to increase their crop yields through a circular economy. The project called for the capture of gray water from households to flow into farm ponds for use in irrigation and also black fecal water which would be turned into compost. The water would be available for irrigation and the compost —manufactured in centrally located plants utilizing mostly women labor—would provide a nutrient-loaded soil for healthier crops and increased yield.  

The project has been helped along by funding from the Securing Water for Food program, a joint effort by USAID, and the governments of the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden. Our NGO entered into a rigorous competition to become one of the SWFF innovator projects around the world.  

However, the cultural and sensitivity problems that impacts society’s use of toilets also are present in the use of compost from fecal sludge being used on-farm plots. Farmers have to be convinced it’s safe. 

The rationale for skepticism, however, is contradictory. 

My colleague, Rajkumar, quotes an Indian saying that every farmer who owns the land is not a farmer. A farmer has to be the one who puts his bare feet on the soil. In fact, the first fertilizer is the feet of the farmer on the soil. Because of this, for many open defecation has never been a big problem. But, of course, it is a major concern. Too often the excrement ends up in rivers where people bath. Our goal is to collect fecal matter and turn it into rich compost.

It is imperative we create social acceptance with the farmers. We see this is happening. However, it is an educational process and takes time. The best evidence of success comes when the product sprouts from the ground. When farmers see higher yields with better-looking crops, they become believers. 


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.