Now playing
03:30
India tackles public defecation
Barrie
Barrie's aunt speaks about how the police brought her the news about the death of her nephew Ibrahima.
PHOTO: VTM
Now playing
01:26
Aunt of Black man who died after arrest in Belgium: We want justice
screengrab US social media
screengrab US social media
PHOTO: Getty Images
Now playing
04:35
Tech companies ban Trump, but not other problematic leaders
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13:  Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over the vote to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump for the second time in little over a year in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted to impeach Trump on the charge of "incitement of insurrection," 232-197 after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol where Congress was working to certify the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden on January 6. 10 Republicans voted to impeach. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over the vote to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump for the second time in little over a year in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted to impeach Trump on the charge of "incitement of insurrection," 232-197 after a mob of his supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol where Congress was working to certify the Electoral College victory of President-elect Joe Biden on January 6. 10 Republicans voted to impeach. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Now playing
02:35
How the world is reacting to Trump's second impeachment
Indonesia sriwijay air crash search for victims wang pkg intl hnk vpx_00000920.png
Indonesia sriwijay air crash search for victims wang pkg intl hnk vpx_00000920.png
Now playing
02:21
Family members wait in anguish as search for crash victims continues
africa china coronavirus vaccine diplomacy lu stout pkg vpx _00025522.png
africa china coronavirus vaccine diplomacy lu stout pkg vpx _00025522.png
PHOTO: CCTV
Now playing
03:09
How China is hoping to use its vaccine as a diplomatic tool
PHOTO: CIRO FUSCO/AFP/ANSA/AFP via Getty Images
Now playing
00:38
Huge sinkhole appears in Italian hospital parking lot
TOPSHOT - Rescue workers carry recovered debris at the port in Jakarta on January 10, 2021, during the search operation for Sriwijaya Air flight SJY182 which crashed after takeoff from Jakarta on January 9. (Photo by Dany Krisnadhi / AFP) (Photo by DANY KRISNADHI/AFP via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Rescue workers carry recovered debris at the port in Jakarta on January 10, 2021, during the search operation for Sriwijaya Air flight SJY182 which crashed after takeoff from Jakarta on January 9. (Photo by Dany Krisnadhi / AFP) (Photo by DANY KRISNADHI/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Dany Krisnadhi/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
02:16
Indonesian jetliner crashes after taking off from Jakarta
 HONG KONG PRO DEMOCRACY ACTIVIST VENTUS LAU BEING ESCORTED BY POLICE.
HONG KONG PRO DEMOCRACY ACTIVIST VENTUS LAU BEING ESCORTED BY POLICE.
PHOTO: VENTUS LAU FACEBOOK PAGE/Reuters
Now playing
03:15
See Hong Kong police arrest former pro-democracy lawmakers
Tensions between the United States and Iran are likely to further escalate once again after Tehran seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker in the Persian Gulf, according to semi-official Iranian news agencies, and announced it had resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity, far beyond the limits laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. President Donald Trump walked away from the agreement in 2018. CNN
Tensions between the United States and Iran are likely to further escalate once again after Tehran seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker in the Persian Gulf, according to semi-official Iranian news agencies, and announced it had resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity, far beyond the limits laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. President Donald Trump walked away from the agreement in 2018. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
PHOTO: YJC
Now playing
02:37
Footage shows chemical tanker seized by Iranian forces
A European health worker prepares a shot of the coronavirus vaccine.
A European health worker prepares a shot of the coronavirus vaccine.
PHOTO: Reuters
Now playing
02:14
Frustration in Europe over pace of coronavirus vaccine rollout
Jack Ma, the co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, founder of Alibaba Group, attends the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He says that the essence of finance is credit management. We must change the pawnshop idea of Finance and rely on the credit system. Shanghai, China, 24 October 2020.

Jack Ma, the co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, founder of Alibaba Group, attended the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He says that the essence of finance is credit management. We must change the pawnshop idea of Finance and rely on the credit system.No Use China. No Use France.
Jack Ma, the co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, founder of Alibaba Group, attends the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He says that the essence of finance is credit management. We must change the pawnshop idea of Finance and rely on the credit system. Shanghai, China, 24 October 2020. Jack Ma, the co-chair of the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, founder of Alibaba Group, attended the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He says that the essence of finance is credit management. We must change the pawnshop idea of Finance and rely on the credit system.No Use China. No Use France.
PHOTO: Zhao Yun/Oriental Image/Reuters
Now playing
03:05
Chinese tech tycoon has not been seen in months
Now playing
02:19
Country has 2nd highest Covid-19 cases. See their vaccine plan
Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg arrives for a meeting at the Europa building in Brussels on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg arrives for a meeting at the Europa building in Brussels on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:24
Greta Thunberg urges public to listen to the experts (2020)
Now playing
01:00
Boris Johnson condemns Trump's actions
Bystanders and a soldier stand near a damaged portion of the airport of Yemen
Bystanders and a soldier stand near a damaged portion of the airport of Yemen's southern city of Aden's after an explosion, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. The blast struck the airport building shortly after a plane carrying the newly formed Cabinet landed on Wednesday. No one on the government plane was hurt. (AP Photo/Majid Saleh)
PHOTO: Majid Saleh/AP
Now playing
02:27
See moment of deadly explosion at Yemen airport
(CNN) —  

It was the ambitious sanitation campaign aimed at giving almost half of India’s 1.3 billion population access to a toilet in just five years.

And last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally declared India free of open defecation, when people relieve themselves in fields, bushes, forests, bodies of water, or any other open spaces, rather than use a toilet.

“The world is amazed that toilets have been provided to more than 600 million people in 60 months, building more than 110 million toilets,” Modi said on Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. “No one was ready to believe earlier that India will become open defecation-free in such a short period of time. Now, it is a reality.”

Modi launched the project – part of his flagship Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign – in 2014, in an effort to eliminate public defecation by 2019. If government figures are correct, it would mark a huge achievement. But experts say the statistics are “misleading” – and that open defecation has not been eliminated in the country.

Nazar Khalid, research fellow at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), said the government focused too much on building toilets and failed to make sure people actually used them. The government also didn’t ensure the new toilets were properly maintained, he added, with sewage properly disposed of.

The problem

According to UNICEF, India had the highest number of people in the world – about 620 million – who defecated in the open, with the vast majority in rural areas.

Open defecation is a major public health hazard, especially for children who risk catching potentially deadly diseases like diarrhea. According to UNICEF, fecal contamination and poor sanitation is a leading cause of child mortality, disease, under nutrition and stunting. Open defecation also exposes women and girls to the danger of physical attacks and rape, and they often have to wait until dark to relieve themselves.

Women walking on train tracks in an area where people defecate in the open near Nizamuddin railway station in New Delhi on September 27, 2019.
Women walking on train tracks in an area where people defecate in the open near Nizamuddin railway station in New Delhi on September 27, 2019.
PHOTO: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

The World Health Organization estimated that Modi’s Clean India campaign could help prevent the deaths of 300,000 people from diarrhea and protein-energy malnutrition between 2014 and this October.

An absence of adequate toilets and water facilities, as well as a lack of awareness about proper sanitation and hygiene, were reasons why people defecated in the open. But attitudes towards defecation in India are a significant challenge in eliminating the practice, and many in rural areas consider defecating in an open space to be cleaner than having a toilet inside the home.

Is India really open defecation free?

Before the Clean India campaign started, only 39% of households had access to a toilet. Yet a World Bank-supported national survey that concluded in February found 10% of people in rural India defecated in the open – and 96% of people who had access to a toilet used it. The government now says 100% of the country has toilet coverage.

Modi said everyone in the country had contributed to the campaign’s success. Getting the public participating in Clean India has been key – Bollywood megastars and filmmakers brought the issue to Indian screens, and there were well-publicized reports of women refusing to get married unless their prospective husband’s house had a toilet.

However experts say the figures are overblown, and that many people are still living without access to a toilet – or don’t use one even if they can.

“We need to appreciate that this government has made sanitation a big priority, which has not happened in the past,” said RICE’s Khalid. “But this is such a big farce because open defecation by no means has been eliminated.”

A RICE study of households in four northern states in 2014 found 70% of rural people surveyed defecated in the open. A second survey, in late 2018, had that figure at 44%.

One problem, according to Khalid, was that the government focused on getting the villages to build toilets, but it didn’t consider facility maintenance and sewage management.

“You are supposed to not only construct latrines but also educate people on how to use them, how to maintain them and what happens with the sludge that goes inside the pit,” Khalid said.

A. Kalimuthu, project director at the WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene) Institute, said: “The construction is the easy part.

“We build hundreds of toilets, but the major focus is teaching people that the toilet is not a hardware, it’s a software.”

Caste issues also remain a significant barrier to changing those attitudes. Traditionally it is the lowest caste members whose job it is to clean latrines and sewers – and they are considered “untouchable” by higher castes.

“People don’t want to handle human feces which has traditionally been reserved for a certain category of people in our society – manual scavengers,” Khalid said.

Two children from India’s lowest caste were allegedly beaten to death late last month after defecating in the open, according to authorities. The siblings, ages 12 and 10 respectively, were attacked while defecating on a public street in Bhakhedi village in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state. Defecating in that village is banned, local police deputy superintendent Viren Singh said.

Ultimately, Khalid said, open defecation “is a behavioral issue, not about access” – and focus should move to finding out whether Modi’s campaign has produced real health impacts.

“It seems very unlikely that a lot of health benefits would be achieved by being partially open defecation free,” he said.