Nepal declared open defecation free, but people are still relieving themselves outdoorsMany households in the Tarai districts do not have toilets due to financial constraints and lack of land.
In December last year, Rautahat was declared “open defecation free” district. While gaining the ODF status, Rautahat became the third district in Province 2 and 63rd district across the country to achieve the feat. According to local authority’s data, a total of 82,767 toilets were constructed in the last three years. Like any other district, the ODF declaration was celebrated amidst much fanfare.
The story on the ground, especially at Mushar Basti settlement at Chandrapur Municipality-9, however, is different. More than half of the families of the 75 households still do not have toilets. They openly defecate in nearby open fields. Although the local municipality has provided them with construction materials for building toilets, due to lack of money, they have not been able to build the latrine.
“We are struggling to manage food for our families,” said Balkrishna Mushar, a local. “How do you expect us to build toilets when we don’t know where our next meal will come from?”
Construction materials given by the ward office are strewn on the road. Families do not care about building toilets in their homes. They say they do not have money.
“Just providing construction materials is not enough. It costs a minimum Rs10,000 for building one toilet,” said Mushar. “How would I manage that money? I would rather go out for defecation.”
Anil Kesari, the divisional engineer of Drinking Water Sanitation Division, admits that toilets have not been built in Dalit settlements.
“The construction materials are unused. We strictly told them to build toilets, but they refused to oblige,” said Kesari.
While settlements like Mushar Basti are still struggling to build toilets and their residents continue to defecate in the open, over 150-km away from Balkrishna’s place in Kathmandu, the government on Monday announced that Nepal has become an open defecation free country—the first in South Asia.
The government celebrated the ODF declaration declaring that the country has 100 percent toilet access in all 77 districts of the country.
According to Water Supply Ministry statistics, at least one toilet has been built in over 5.6 million households. The declaration was made after all 753 local levels and 77 districts achieved the ODF status.
“The number of toilets can go even higher as the number in particular districts have been counted from the day it was declared ODF,” said Ritesh Kumar Shakya, spokesperson at the ministry. “The declaration has been made after several layers of monitoring by various agencies.”
In order to make Nepal ODF by 2017, a National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan (2011-2017) was adopted, which aimed to achieve 100 percent Total Behavioural Change by achieving open defecation free status, universal toilet coverage along with 11 other WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene ) related indicators in all 75 districts.
According to Bhola Paswan, a Dalit activist and journalist, who has reported on ODF in Tarai districts, the ODF announcement was only limited on paper.
“The ODF status is more on paper but the picture is different on the ground,” said Paswan. “The government had to show its progress to various donor agencies. Therefore, it hurriedly announced itself as ODF.”
The government deciding to declare the country as ODF country just two days ahead of its neighbouring country India which is gearing up to declare itself ODF country on October 2 shows the government was more interested in being the first in the region.
“There is no competition as such. We announced the ODF status because we have achieved the 100 percent access to toilets. Nepal could have done this in 2017, only if the earthquake had not struck the country,” said Shakya. “The aim was to ensure that no one has to go outside for toilets other than exception situation.”
For a country, which is struggling to ensure sustainable access to achieve water, sanitation and hygiene, building toilets have always been a tall task. However, there has been a significant improvement in the last decades. In 1980, only two percent of households across the country had access to toilets before it improved to meagre six percent in 1990. As per the government data, the country has finally reached the milestone of 100 percent access to toilets in 2019 after Bhojpur was declared the last ODF district.
Despite the government’s claim, many districts, mainly in the Tarai region, are still struggling to live up to the ODF status. Even major cities like Kathmandu, which was also declared ODF earlier this month, have failed to control open defecation.
Many people continue to defecate in the open, either because they have not built toilets in their homes due to financial issues or do not have land to build toilets.
Morang district in Province 1 struggles to maintain its ODF status even though it was declared ODF just two months ago, exposing how haphazardly such declarations are made.
According to Arbind Mandal, a local of Biratnagar Metropolitan City, poor Dalit families still do not have toilets.
“For instance, a majority of households at Musahar Basti of Bakhari do not have toilets,” said Mandal. “They are living inside small huts on small patches of public land. Where would they build toilets?”
Similar problems have been witnessed in various districts of Province 2, where the authorities started ODF campaign in earnest beginning last fiscal year.
Not much has changed in the province when it comes to the toilet practice of its inhabitants. Many people still defecate in fields and near water bodies.
In Sarlahi district, open defecation has not stopped although the practice has gone down. This only indicates that the district was declared ODF in a hurry, according to a local civil society member Rajni Kant Jha.
“There are no public toilets even in urban areas. This has led to the ineffectiveness of the ODF campaign,” said Jha. “On paper, Siraha district is ODF, but the situation is different in rural areas because of lack of awareness.”
Even those families which have built toilets are using it for storage of firewood or keeping them locked and unused. The problem is even bigger among Dalit communities because of landlessness, said Paswan.
“Most of the marginalised communities like Mushar and Dom in the Tarai do not have toilets because they do not own land,” said Paswan. “Some of them built toilets but that were too close to the kitchen or water hand pump, making them unusable.”
Since the ODF campaign started, various government and non-government agencies were also forcing locals to build toilets by denying them government entitlements if they had not one.
According to Paswan, there was a “toilet terror” among Tarai villages.
“Families were compelled to build toilets irrespective of their financial status because the birth certificates and other amenities were blocked by the local government. In Siraha, a Dalit student was not allowed to appear in exams,” said Paswan. “Also, the budget allocated for the empowerment of marginalised communities like Dalits and Muslims were diverted to toilet building.”
Shakya said the government is aware that people are still defecating outdoors. Tarai districts and even major cities are facing ODF challenges due to the lack of public toilets.
“We know that people will not stop defecating outside from tomorrow because the country is ODF now. The declaration was made on the coverage of toilet access, which is a milestone for towards achieving complete sanitation” said Shakya. “The government will now work on public toilet buildings, behavioural changes, use of toilets, environmental sanitation as it has also announced that the country is marching towards complete sanitation status.”
Shiva Puri, Om Prakash Thakur and Dev Narayan Sah contributed reporting.