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Measuring open defecation in India using survey questions: evidence from a randomised survey experiment
  1. Sangita Vyas1,2,
  2. Nikhil Srivastav2,3,
  3. Divya Mary4,
  4. Neeta Goel5,
  5. Sujatha Srinivasan4,
  6. Ajaykumar Tannirkulam4,
  7. Radu Ban6,
  8. Dean Spears1,2,7,
  9. Diane Coffey2,7,8
  1. 1 Economics and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA
  2. 2 r.i.c.e, India
  3. 3 LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA
  4. 4 IFMR LEAD, Institute for Financial Management and Research, Chennai, India
  5. 5 International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, New Delhi, India
  6. 6 Evidence and Measurement, WSH Program, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, Washington, USA
  7. 7 Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, India
  8. 8 Sociology and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA
  1. Correspondence to Sangita Vyas; sangita.vyas{at}


Objectives To investigate differences in reported open defecation between a question about latrine use or open defecation for every household member and a household-level question.

Setting Rural India is home to most of the world’s open defecation. India’s Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2015–2016 estimates that 54% of households in rural India defecate in the open. This measure is based on a question asking about the behaviour of all household members in one question. Yet, studies in rural India find substantial open defecation among individuals living in households with latrines, suggesting that household-level questions underestimate true open defecation.

Participants In 2018, we randomly assigned latrine-owning households in rural parts of four Indian states to receive one of two survey modules measuring sanitation behaviour. 1215 households were asked about latrine use or open defecation individually for every household member. 1216 households were asked the household-level question used in India’s DHS: what type of facility do members of the household usually use?

Results We compare reported open defecation between households asked the individual-level questions and those asked the household-level question. Using two methods for comparing open defecation by question type, the individual-level question found 20–21 (95% CI 16 to 25 for both estimates) percentage points more open defecation than the household-level question, among all households, and 28–29 (95% CI 22 to 35 for both estimates) percentage points more open defecation among households that received assistance to construct their latrines.

Conclusions We provide the first evidence that individual-level questions find more open defecation than household-level questions. Because reducing open defecation in India is essential to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, and exposure to open defecation has consequences for child mortality and development, it is essential to accurately monitor its progress.

Trial registration number Registry for International Development Impact Evaluations (5b55458ca54d1).

  • India
  • open defecation
  • sanitation
  • survey methods
  • experiment

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  • Contributors SV, NS, DS and DC contributed to the study design. SV, NS, DC and DS designed the survey instruments. NS, DM, SS and AT oversaw data collection. SV, NS and NG coordinated between the 3ie research teams and the survey team for this study. SV, RB, DC and DS contributed to analysis. All authors contributed to drafting the report.

  • Funding International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. RB, who is employed on the WSH programme of BMGF, contributed to the analysis of the results. NG contributed to coordinating data collection. Both contributed inputs to drafting the report.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval The study received ethical approval for research involving human subjects from the Institute for Financial Management and Research’s Institutional Review Board in India, Approval # IRB00007107.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are publicly available here:

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