ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Culture and Sanitation in Small Towns

An Ethnographic Study of Angul and Dhenkanal in Odisha

In the current sanitation policy discourse, cultural norms of purity and pollution are considered major obstacles to toilet use, leading to an emphasis on behavioural change. A recent study of slums in Angul and Dhenkanal—two small towns in Odisha—shows that culture does not operate in isolation. It is determined by multiple factors such as the availability of physical space in urban areas, the resources to be invested, essential infrastructure such as water, and accessible, cost-effective technology. There are aspects of culture that people compromise on, but certain cultural norms are non-negotiable. This calls for a decoding of the cultural determinants of sanitation.

This study was conducted by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, under the Scaling City Institutions for India (SCI-FI) Project on urban sanitation, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, between December 2015 and March 2017.

The authors are thankful to the anonymous referee for comments on this article.

A global study indicates that one billion people—15% of the world’s population—practise open defecation (OD), of whom 626 million live in India (UNICEF–WHO 2012). As per the 2011 Census of India, only 46.92% of households (30.74% rural and 81.36% urban) in India have latrines, while 49.84% (67.32% rural and 12.63% urban) practise OD. Data from the 2011 Census on types of latrines organised by city size indicate that as the size of a city decreases, dependence on on-site sanitation and OD increases (Housing and Urban Development Department 2017). The Census also indicates that Odisha, with an urban population of 42 million and high decadal population growth, lacks toilet coverage for 35.2% of its urban households. More than 33% of Odisha’s urban populace defecate in the open.

OD, however, is not only practised by those lacking toilet facilities. Even among those who have toilets, some prefer OD. Diane Coffey et al (2015) found that in some rural areas in North India, people do not use the standard pit latrines prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO). United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)–WHO data shows that the practice of OD is related neither to education and literacy status nor to poverty.1 The reluctance of the Indian poor to use toilets, and their preference for OD, poses a sanitation puzzle; this paper seeks a possible clue to this puzzle in the cultural practices of Hindus.

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Updated On : 14th Oct, 2019
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