CRAMMED into Meena Choudhary’s mud-brick house in Yeoor, on the outskirts of Mumbai, are a television, fridge and washing machine. Yet until recently her family of six relieved themselves in nearby fields. The morning ritual involved arming herself with a jug, stick and torch, negotiating squelching bogs and tall grass, glancing around for onlookers and thumping the ground a few times to scare off snakes. “It was stressful,” says Mrs Choudhary, who managed to persuade her husband to build a toilet at home two years ago.
Stories like Mrs Choudhary’s are music to the ears of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister. He has pledged to eliminate “open defecation” by 2019. His government says it will spend almost $29bn to that end, providing a subsidy of 12,000 rupees ($187) for every toilet built. It claims the “Clean India Mission” has already led to the construction of 46m latrines, with another 64m to come.
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But the scheme is beset by inefficiencies and graft. In December an investigation by the Indian Express revealed that in Dhamtari, a village in the state of Chhattisgarh declared to be “open defecation free”, a third of the households still had no toilet. “Millions of latrines reported built by the government are missing,” write Dean Spears and Diane Coffey in a new book on the subject.
Even when toilets have been built they are often not used. A survey in 2014 by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics found that among the two-fifths of households with a working latrine, at least one family member preferred to defecate outside. Toilets, often the only concrete structure in the house, are sometimes used to store firewood, grass, chickens, cow-dung cakes and food grains. They can also double as goat-sheds or even shrines.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, the government worked with village councils to educate people about the importance of better sanitation rather than subsidising the construction of toilets, says Nitya Jacob of WaterAid India, an NGO. Having a toilet became a point of pride. Women sat on committees that decided on the location and type of latrines to be built.
In contrast, Indian officials have often tried to humiliate people into using toilets. In Sangola, a town in the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), people defecating in the open found their photographs flashed on digital displays. A few others were escorted home in loud processions.
Some states have made it compulsory to have a toilet to be eligible to contest an election. Others have produced ads that mock people who do not use loos. One shows a child who throws a stone and laughs at people relieving themselves in public. Another takes a dig at people who own motorcycles and television sets, but don’t use toilets.
The shaming sometimes shades into coercion and violence. In June a man in the state of Rajasthan was beaten to death for stopping municipal employees photographing women defecating in the open. In Madhya Pradesh an old man with an upset stomach was forced to clean up after himself with his own clothing. In Chhattisgarh, a village head denied government benefits to those without toilets. The northern state of Haryana even toyed with the idea of deploying drones to spy on people defecating in the bushes.
Some villages are showing a better way. In February residents of 110 villages in three northern states agreed not to marry off their daughters to households without toilets. In “Toilet: A Love Story”, a Bollywood film released on August 11th, the heroine threatens to walk out of her marriage if the groom does not install a latrine. Mrs Choudhary’s younger daughter is in a similar position after moving in with her in-laws. “It’s a matter of time,” she says, smiling confidently. “I am on it.”