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Half of India couldn't access a toilet 5 years ago. Modi built 110M latrines -- but will people use them?
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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.

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.

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