India toilet 201910
In this file photo taken on November 15, 2017 an Indian resident checks his phone as he waits to use a public toilet on a street in Chennai. India is to be declared "open-defecation free" by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 2, although experts question his bold claim that all 1.3 billion people in the country have access to a toilet. Image Credit: AFP

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was set to declare India "open-defecation free" on Wednesday but despite huge progress there was scepticism about his bold claim.

Experts say millions still lack access to a toilet, and that because of old habits many of the tens of millions of the new facilities that have been built are not even being used.

Modi made his "latrines for all" pledge when he first took office in 2014 and was set to make his announcement on Wednesday evening to coincide with the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, an icon not just for Indian independence but also sanitation.

The government claims to have built almost 100 million toilets in the past five years, winning Modi plaudits abroad - including last week's award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In March, his administration said fewer than 50 million people now relieved themselves outside, down from 550 million in 2014, and that 93.1 percent of households had access to a toilet.

However, experts are sceptical over Modi's claims, citing data from rural as well as urban areas.

"Latrine ownership increased from about 35 percent to about 70 percent... That did accelerate the reduction of open defecation," said Sangita Vyas from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE).

"But in December 2018 we estimated about half of people in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still defecated in the open," she told AFP.

She doubts the shortfall has been made up since. Those four states are home to more than 450 million people.

For instance across from Modi's office, on the other side of New Delhi, Vijaya has just relieved herself next to the tracks near Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station early in the morning.

"There is no toilet (where we live). We all go out in the open," she told AFP.

"We have been here for years and nobody has constructed a toilet, despite our repeated pleas," Kaveri, a domestic helper, said in her nearby home in the poor neighbourhood of Barapullah.

"We go out in the public and it's not safe, but what do we do?" said the mother-of-three.

Used for other purposes

Many of the toilets that have been constructed are not being used and it is not unusual for them to be locked, used for storage, or some other purpose.

Rekha, 26, a mother-of-two who lives in a makeshift tent in the north Delhi district of Bawana, says the nearest toilet facility isn't working.

The other one, she says, costs women three rupees (about four US cents) to use. Since she and her husband earn 10-12,000 rupees a month sifting through rubbish, they can't always afford it.

"We (women) do feel ashamed when we go in the bushes," she told AFP. "Yes, there are males looking at us but if we try to safeguard our dignity, then where will we go?"

Cultural barriers, engrained habits or a lack of knowledge about sanitation also create barriers to more widespread usage.

"If you're going to change the behaviour of rural folk on a sustainable, long term, permanent basis, the only way you're going to be able to do it would be by first focusing on behaviour change," said Santosh Mehrotra, a development economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"In the process of the target-driven, numbers-driven strategy of the programme, the terms 'having toilets' and the village becoming 'open defecation free' have become interchangeable. They are not," Mehrotra told AFP.