In mid 2011, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, both visiting researchers at Economics and Planning Unit of Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi and also assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin, moved to Sitapur, a district in Uttar Pradesh, to conduct a study on poor early-life health and process of stunting among many Indian children. While Coffey attempted to understand the challenges of raising a baby in the district, Spears compiled government and demographic data to understand the correlation between stunting, cognitive development of Indian children to sanitation. Their findings—that due to poor sanitation, children in rural India die young and those who survive grow up physically and cognitively stunted—raised a further unexplainable question: how is open defecation in rural India different from the rest of developing countries? Coffey and Spears discuss the answer to this question in their book, Where India Goes Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste. They found that the primary reason for poor sanitation in rural areas is the persistence of caste prejudices or caste hierarchies, which relegate any work involving proximity to human waste to those considered lower-caste, and perpetuate practices such as manual scavenging. (The Caravan published an extract from the book, in which the writers discuss this finding, on its web-exclusives section, Vantage.)
Sagar, a web reporter at The Caravan, spoke to Coffey about the authors’ research and findings. According to Coffey, open defecation in India is a human-development emergency and a dwindling opportunity to prevent a million or more child deaths. Coffey also detailed her experiences speaking to villagers in rural India regarding their outlook towards sanitation, the troubles facing the Swachh Bharat Mission, and why the program is unlikely to achieve its goal of ending open defecation by 2019.
Sagar: You write in the book that, more than bad governance, or the level of poverty, or accessibility to toilets, it has been caste Hindu beliefs in the concepts of purity and untouchability that perpetuated open defecation in rural India. Could you elaborate?