Indian men are less likely to use toilets than women, even if they have access to one, a five-state study by market research firm IMRB and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found, in what could be bad news for the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat mission.
The study, commissioned by the urban development ministry, looked at the toilet habits of 4,400 urban poor households in 30 districts of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu between August and October 2015. It found that though 68% of these households had access to toilets — not necessarily built under Swachh Bharat — either at home or in the community, 45% of men used them inconsistently and 10% not at all. Comparative figures for women were 25% and 4%, respectively.
Rajasthan had the highest percentage (54%) of men who were inconsistent in using toilets while Odisha led in terms of men (24%) who avoided the facilities altogether. “In India, masculinity can override ordinary conceptions of shame. Men are more relaxed when it comes to the application of rules to themselves. Though basic gender disparity is there in every society, it is glaring in India,” said noted sociologist Andre Beteille.
Another explanation for India’s poor toilet habits may lie in its “obsession with purity and pollution”, he said. “In our obsession for ritual purity, we make compromises with physical cleanliness.” Respondents listed dirty and smelly toilets, lack of water and broken facilities as some of the reasons they avoided using toilets.
Houses with non-functional loos were a common element. In Andhra, a quarter of households with toilets reported that the facilities weren’t in working condition. In Tamil Nadu, one-fifth of the loos were defunct.Four per cent of households across the five states used toilets as storage space. The study also found that bad habits die hard. More men used toilets when they were new — within the first six months of construction —but usage dropped drastically as the toilets got older.
Behaviour regression — forming a good habit (using a toilet in this case) but going back on it after a while — was another problem. The study said men tended to use toilets more in the rainy season than they did in the dry months. Womens’ behavior, on the other hand, was independent of seasonal variations.
“Men tend to think the toilet is constructed for women at home, they see it as a space for women. This adds to issues related to maintenance of the toilet, which results in such behaviour,” said Surya AV, senior vice-president at IMRB. Of the 38% households in the five states that did not have their own toilets, the main reason cited was financial constraints, followed by lack of space and a habit of defecating in the open.
The Narendra Modi government has made it its mission to rid India of open defecation by 2019, setting itself a target of building toilets in 104 lakh households by then. But the Swachh Bharat campaign, launched in 2014, is stuttering with only 11% of toilets completed till March 31 this year.
The study’s findings, government officials said, highlight the need to target men in government communication, which is presently women-centric. “We are re-strategising our communication based on the study,” said a ministry official.