To What Extent does Culture Determine the Usage of Toilets by Urban Poor in India?

22 October 2019
To What Extent does Culture Determine the Usage of Toilets by Urban Poor in India?

A global study at the beginning of the decade indicated that one billion people—15% of the world’s population—practice open defecation (OD), of whom 626 million live in India. OD, however, is not only practised by those lacking toilet facilities. Even among those who have toilets, some prefer OD. Data shows that the practice of OD is related neither to education and literacy status nor to poverty. The reluctance of the Indian poor to use toilets, and their preference for OD, poses a sanitation puzzle.

The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM-U), launched in 2014, strived to make urban India open defecation-free by 2019. It aimed to provide sanitary toilets to all urban households.  In Oct 2019, India has been declared Open Defecation Free by Prime Minster, Narendra Modi.  But does construction of toilets necessarily promote usage? Why do people in urban slums show reluctance to use toilets?  To what extent, and in what ways, do sociocultural norms, behaviours, and practices influence the toilet behavior?

Purity and Pollution

Traditional norms of purity and pollution are crucial in determining sanitation practices in India. Hindu norms of pollution and purity have many dimensions that centre on connotations of dirt and pollution, purity and cleanliness, physical spaces as pure or impure, and the human body as a site of purity and impurity.

  • Dirt: Viewed as polluting and disorderly, there are two connotations of dirt: physical dirt, such as human excreta and garbage, and cultural dirt, such as that associated with menstruation, birth, and death. Sometimes, the boundary between physical and cultural dirt is thin. Human excreta is considered physical dirt, but even when modern toilet technologies make the dirt invisible and destroy its toxic potential, toilets are still considered ‘unclean’ by Hindu households. Therefore, toilets are built at a distance so as not to pollute the pure, such as food cooked in the kitchen, and sacred spaces where deities are kept for household worship. Not only is human waste considered defiling and impure, the body also becomes impure during the process of defecation, which is a release of dirt. Both men and women are required to bathe after defecation so that their bodies are purified.
  • Space: The purity of the inner space of the house must be guarded by assigning separate spaces to different kinds of dirt: the toilet is kept outside the house, shoes are left outside the entrance, and menstruating women stay away from spaces of worship and cooking. The inner space is ritually purified following the pollution of birth or death. Similarly, the body has to be purified through a ritual bath after menstruation. As women are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the purity of the inner space, they have to bathe in the morning before their household chores so that they are ritually pure to worship or to cook.
  • Caste: The castes that deal with materials considered polluting—human waste, dead bodies, dirty clothes, human hair, and the hide of dead animals—are considered impure and untouchable. Those who deal with human waste and dead bodies are considered the ‘lowest of the low’ and work as sweepers and scavengers, and are the traditional bearers of night soil. The castes rendered untouchable live in hamlets on the outskirts of villages, away from the upper castes. In cities, they live in peripheral, common places such as railway lines and riverbanks, close to morgues and slaughterhouses. The casteist notion of cleanliness is thus more social than physical. Social order is maintained through ritual cleanliness, which may not necessarily be a matter of hygiene.

Tradition, Modernity and the ‘Non Negotiable’

The connotations of physical dirt and ritual dirt influence sanitation behaviours in urban spaces with varying degrees of compromise and adaptation. However, even the urban environment cannot make people compromise on what can be called the ‘non-negotiable’ aspects of culture. For example, when a toilet is constructed within the house and it coexists with the pure spaces, the place for defecation is barricaded from the living inner space of the house. While the middle class can separate some rooms, such as puja ghar (place of worship), kitchen, and living space from the toilet, the poor do not have sufficient space to construct separate, barricaded spaces for what is considered pure.

Regardless of their location and technology, toilets carry the connotation of ritual impurity. Hence, toilet behaviours remain the same in middle-class as well as poor households. All castes, whether rich or poor, employ manual scavengers from the untouchable castes to clean their septic tanks and pits.

Traditionally, women are considered the custodians of the purity of the inner, private space of the house. In slums, women continue to perform that role. They keep the space physically clean by removing dirt and household garbage. They change into separate clothes during defecation, regardless of whether they practise OD or use a toilet. Women refrain from performing puja when their bodies are considered impure, such as during menstruation and after delivery. The inner space is not only the space inside the house; it includes the outer space attached to the house. Every Hindu household worships the tulsi plant grown outside.

Why Open Defecation?

OD is a common practice despite its inconvenience and physical and health risks. It is practised not only by those who do not have toilets. Those who have toilets use them selectively: at night, during illness, and in the rainy season; in addition, old people and women, particularly pregnant women, old women, and adolescent girls often use toilets.

There are many reasons why those who have toilets do not use them: the fear that the pit will get filled too soon; the high cost associated with cleaning the pit; the feeling that the dirt, though underground, is too close to living, cooking, and worship spaces in small dwellings; cultural notions of purity and pollution; and social norms of shame and avoidance that regulate defecation in the presence of the elderly, males (in the case of women), and guests. Water is also a significant constraint in the use of toilets at home, since water supply in slums is erratic and inadequate.

Infrastructural Constraints

The majority of slum households use pit and improved pit toilets. Many of these toilets are poorly designed and lack adequate technology. Some households have toilets that are connected to drains and canals, where they discharge their effluents. Not all toilets used for defecation have a superstructure. Some are without the superstructure altogether, while others have half-erected ones covered with clothes, rags, and plastic bags.

Slum dwellers prefer to spend their money on houses rather than on toilets because they see houses as necessary for safety and shelter, but toilets as replaceable with alternatives. The construction of a toilet at home is determined by many factors, such as financial resources; the availability of physical space; the needs of the old, the sick, and the women in the family; and considerations of purity and pollution that become particularly constraining in small houses.

Having a toilet in the house does not mean that the household members’ defecation practice is hygienic, as most people use unsanitary toilets. These, along with spatial constraints, blur the lines between ritual and physical dirt for the urban poor. The poor, therefore, prefer to construct toilets outside the living space. When a toilet is located inside a very small house, people are more likely to refrain from using it.

Bridging the Gap

Culture does not operate alone, but interacts with a host of other factors: the availability of physical space, financial resources, and access to infrastructure and technology. Behavioural change is conceptualised as the shift required in practices of purity and pollution that deter Hindus from using toilets. But behavioural change does not take into account these factors. Hence, we find that among households with toilets, their use is determined by existing technology and the availability of physical space and water.

Due to the SBM-U’s emphasis on the physical target of a specific number of toilets that need to be constructed within a specified time period, any localised, complex, or nuanced understanding of culture escapes the current policies. There is no scope in the policies to accommodate how culture manifests in the local context. A lack of community consultation and participation further limits information about the specific needs of people. The failure to adapt to local requirements also restricts implementers from customising policies. Women play a significant role in both private and public sanitation but are seldom consulted about their needs and choices.

It is imperative that policies expand their scope to include understanding culture. It is likely that the governance of sanitation at the local level will follow.


This blog is based on findings of the article, Culture and Sanitation in Small Towns: An Ethnographic Study of Angul and Dhenkanal in Odisha by Ranjita Mohanty and Anju Dwivedi. The article can be accessed here.

Recent webinars on understanding the sanitation landscape in India as part of the Sanitation Insights at CPR series can be accessed here.

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.