How many toilets were built under Swachh Bharat Mission? Authorities really need to count
The government claims to have built 2.1 crore toilets in India since the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on 2 October 2014.
The number of households with toilets has risen 12% since the launch, and now 54% households in India are covered.
All this is according to the real-time data that the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) updates on its website.
But how true is all of this? It is hard enough to monitor toilet use, but are the actual number of toilets, built under the scheme, also under question?
A recent ground-level monitoring done by the rural development ministry has revealed large differences between its findings and the MDWS data.
But as it turns out, the monitoring system's data does not compare to its own historical data - raising larger questions about the sloppy auditing in the Modi government's flagship scheme.
The data issue
Each year, the Rural Development ministry sends retired government officials empanelled under it to select villages. They monitor social sector schemes like MGNREGA, Indira Awas Yojana, and Swachh Bharat.
The process is known as National Level Monitoring or NLM and results in a single NLM report covering all the schemes.
The latest NLM report has reportedly found having large differences in many states between the number of toilets built as per the MDWS and what the retired officers found on ground.
For example, in select villages of Rajasthan, there's a 28% difference between the number of toilets recorded and those actually found over the same time period.
In Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, the gap is over 40%.
In Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Karnataka, the difference is around 25%.
Figuring it out
While these figures are as per the Times of India report, they were confirmed to Catch by a senior official in the rural development ministry's monitoring directorate.
Predictably, the large discrepancies have caused some alarm.
According to the TOI report, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has sent letters to states, seeking their responses on these discrepancies.
But, when one looks closely at the NLM numbers, it turns out that they cannot be easily trusted either. The latest NLM figures are based on a study conducted between February and April 2016.
The previous NLM report, which is available in the public domain, was based on a survey conducted just a few months ago, between October-December 2015. And, there are huge gaps between the findings of the two surveys.
In the 2015 study, for instance, almost no discrepancy was found in Arunachal Pradesh, which in the latest report has a 41% gap between reported numbers and those recorded in the survey.
In Gujarat and Rajasthan too, the new report claims to have found a 23% and 28% gap respectively, but as per the previous report, the difference was under 10%.
In Madhya Pradesh, while the latest NLM found more toilets on ground than those reported by the ministry, the 2015 report found just the opposite.
Inaccuracies admitted to
A senior official from the rural development ministry's monitoring directorate, which looks after the NLMs, admitted that there are statistical inaccuracies in the reports prepared by the retired officials.
While each NLM round chooses different districts, the choice is based on statistical sampling, which means the errors from one survey to the next should be minimal. Clearly, this has not been the case.
Another official from the MDWS, involved in the Swachh Bharat Mission, agreed that there are statistical errors in the NLM reports.
"Unlike their data, which is a sample survey, our data is exhaustive - it includes each toilet recorded."
The official said that as NLM studies a variety of rural programmes in each village, they cannot properly study toilet building.
"Whosoever is going needs to understand the current dynamics. In future we will make sure that they have the right orientation about our work before they go on the field," the official added.
Meanwhile, the MDWS has also admitted that its own data needs to improve. The data comes from state governments, but each has its own criteria for declaring a village open defecation free - the ultimate aim of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
The ministry is in the process of streamlining the definition, and has issued guidelines, according to a 1 August letter sent to states.
It has organised a workshop in Jaipur on 22 August as well to "cross learn and share" the mechanism adopted by different states to declare a village open defecation free.