“Every morning at the crack of dawn, residents of a New Delhi slum gather by the railway tracks to do what most would only do in private — go to the toilet” (CNN). India’s vast railway system, which carries 11 million passengers a day, is often called the lifeline of India. But Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development, at a recent bio-lavatory launch, has dubbed it something else. “The Indian railway is really the world’s biggest open toilet.”

Railroad in India with a couple of men in the distance walking on the rail

Photo from Pixabay

One-half of India’s population, at least 620 million people, defecates outside. Nearly 60% of the people in the world who open defecate belong to India. Open defecation is a disaster waiting to happen especially when practiced by groups in close contact with each other. A recent government census showed nearly half of India’s households do not have a toilet, but more people own a mobile phone. Because India’s population is huge and growing rapidly, it is impossible even in rural areas to keep human waste from crops, water sources, food and children’s hands. Hundreds of thousands of children die in India each year from preventable diseases..

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, pledged to add 5 million toilets by the end of September of this year. Unfortunately, the toilets that have been built in India have sometimes gone unused. According to UNICEF, India has revamped its national sanitation program to focus less on subsidized toilet construction and more on helping the population understand the benefits of toilets. Diane Coffey, an economist at Princeton, surveyed 23,000 north Indians and found that even in households with a working toilet, more than 40% reported that at least one family member preferred to defecate in the open.  Some respondents spoke of open defecation as wholesome, healthy and social. Latrines were seen as potentially impure. This suggests that the availability of latrines will not end open defecation. Instead India needs to spark public campaigns.