A Closer Look at Barriers

By Ashutosh Wakankar, Centre of Gravity

An important dimension in our study has been the barriers to adoption of toilets. And given that our mandate was to develop a communication-based solution, the effort has been to identify those factors that can be impacted by using communication. However, as we discovered, there are barriers at multiple levels that make open defecation (OD) a multifaceted phenomenon. Let’s look at some of them.

At the most fundamental level there are aspects of the environment that make it difficult to build and use a toilet. Small houses, lack of water and financial constraints are significant barriers. In the catchment we studied, the average income was around Rs. 30,000 per annum and average land-holding was around 2 acres. An expenditure of Rs. 10,000 on a toilet therefore becomes a significant stretch unless someone in the house desperately needs one, like an old mother who can barely walk or a pregnant daughter.

Enhanced water and space efficiency require major innovations, which are beyond the scope of this project at this point. However, the financial incentive provided by the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) scheme does address a very significant barrier. However, a mammoth government scheme like the NBA, which is extremely difficult to navigate and that is prone to corruption further contributes to the barriers people face while owning a toilet.

Another significant barrier to adoption is the issue of existing behaviors. A habit formed over decades as a daily ritual is extremely hard to break even if the desired behavior is a more convenient alternative on the face of it. For instance, I did not grow up with the habit of night-brushing and therefore find the practice difficult to inculcate. Using a toilet is a similar behavioural change, particularly for men. To that extent, inculcating the habit of using a toilet among children represents a critical opportunity in making this transition towards reducing OD.

Rural household toiletAt the next level are barriers of capability. These are also more in the mind as defecation is not something that needs to be learnt. Yet there are many who will tell you that they are not able to defecate inside an enclosed space. However, as we found, this is not a significant barrier.

The biggest barrier to using toilets is the belief that OD is not particularly harmful, and that there is no significant benefit from using a toilet. Most government communication tries to target rural audiences at this level, using the arguments of health and well-being. Yet they do not find much traction as people do not experience the ill effects of OD or the positive effects of using toilets in the short run. Using toilets is just not important from a health perspective.

The most significant opportunity that we found a communication strategy could address, was in the area of identity. There is a general positive association between toilets and people who are well-off and modern – that people who have (and use) toilets care for the women of the house. The majority of men will associate these identity values with those who own toilets and yet they do not think of themselves like that. For them, those who use toilets are different.

It is this gap which our communication strategy aims to bridge, by upping the volume on the idea of ‘what kind of man’ you are, or what kind of man you want to be. Our strategy poses the question – are you a responsible man? Do you want the women in your family to see you as a responsible man?



At the heart of the identity of a responsible man is the notion of modernity. A man who cares for women is seen as a more modern man and while most men in villages will not acknowledge it, their personal modernity evolves over years with the acquisition of small symbols of modernity like stitched clothes, a watch, a two-wheeler and of course, the mobile phone.

By provoking this thought we hope to reduce the need for complex justifications for toilet ownership and efforts will certainly be required to make the environment more toilet-friendly. Only when these two work in tandem can we hope for an OD-free India.


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