According to the UN, around 595 million people, or nearly half of India's population, defecates in the open.

In his first Independence Day address on August 15, 2014, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the building of toilets in rural India, one of his government's major priorities.

A year later the Indian government claims that their "Clean India" campaign has since achieved the target of ensuring separate toilets for boys and girls in all schools across the country. They also claimed to have constructed around 800,000 toilets in rural India.

But according to some reports in local media, while the toilets may be getting built, many villagers have refused to change thir habits, and toilets are lying empty.

Al Jazeera spoke to Dr Bindeshwar Pathak - founder of Sulabh International - who has made it his mission since Sulabh's founding in 1970, to raise awareness of better hygiene through the building of toilets across the country.

Al Jazeera: Why are there so many millions of Indians living without toilets?

Pathak: In India in [the] Puranic period [Vedic period] it was suggested that Indians don't defecate near human habitation. It was also suggested that one should go at a distance, dig a small pit, put some grass and leaves in it and then defecate. This practice of defecation in the open is still prevalent in India, especially in the rural areas, in urban slums and at places of religious gatherings.

In earlier days, the villages had trees, bushes and raised mounds where one could take cover while defecating. This and the tropical climate only helped people to observe this practice freely. Therefore, it has cultural legacy; besides while many people do not have adequate money to build the toilets, in some cases no place is available to build the toilets.

AJ: Has the approach to toilets changed in India?

Pathak: When I used to meet people in [the India state of] Bihar in 1968, they used to discourage me to talk about toilets. Now talking about toilets has become common in this country and even the Prime Minister of India mentions about it; and we have been able to provide toilet related-solutions not only to India but also to 2.5 billion people across the globe who have no access to safe and hygienic toilets. The toilets are now being built by the NGOs, government bodies and others. The goal now is not only to build toilets but to also get people to use them.

AJ: How do you convince people and why are villagers refusing? How did you get involved in this field?

Pathak: During childhood and formative years of my life, belonging to an orthodox Brahmin family and living in a village, I saw the elders and specially women of the family, including my mother and aunts being constrained to rise early in the morning and go out to the fields to ease themselves, and undergo the pain and discomfort of holding back the urge to evacuate during the day and wait till dark to go out to answer call of nature. I did not feel happy about all this.

Secondly as a child I saw the person who used to come to clean the house being shunned and all of us being told not to touch because he was an untouchable. But out of curiosity I touched him, which was not taken favorably by my family members. My grandmother forced me to undergo a purification ritual of swallowing urine, sand and Ganges water. These experiences and incidents firmed my resolve to make it my mission to see that untouchability is mitigated and the obnoxious practice of defecating in the open is eliminated.

More than 53 percent of Indian homes — about 70 percent in the villages — lack toilets [EPA]

AJ: But how did you get involved in building toilets? What prompted you to build more than a million toilets in peoples' homes?

Pathak: My aim was to make people aware about importance of toilets and to let people know there are some 50 types of diseases that one can get from not having a toilet. Lack of toilets can cause diahorrea and dehydration, and mortality rate increases among children. My target was to provide safe and hygienic toilets to women so that they could use toilets in safety and with dignity, and girls go to schools. My aim was to rescue the untouchables from this sub-human occupation and to bring them in the mainstream of society which was the dream of Mahatma Gandhi.

My endeavor was also to demonstrate how toilets can be built and maintained for the use of people in the public places like bus stands, markets, railway stations etc. Since 1970, our NGO Sulabh, has converted and constructed 1.3 million household toilets and constructed and are maintaining more than 8,000 public toilets on "pay and use" basis all over the country, of which 200 of them are attached with biogas plants.

I invented the two pit pour flush ecologically compatible compost toilet  … but all this required a great deal of effort moving from house to house motivating people overcoming their reluctance to install toilets in their houses.

AJ: You mentioned safety and security for women.

Pathak: Yes. There have been many instances where women and the girls were raped when they went outside for defecation. You must have read many times about this in newspapers. For example, how in Badaun two girls were raped and then hanged. We have built 108 individual household toilets to save the girls from harassment. If the toilets are built inside the houses, I think the incidence of rapes will decline.

AJ: Since Narendra Modi became prime minister, he has spoken up about the need for improving sanitation, even launching a toilet campaign. But is it working? And is there any real success of the campaign on the ground?

Pathak: Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign has ignited the minds of Indians and talking about toilets has become commonplace now. The whole nation has woken up and everywhere there is talk and attempt being made to provide toilets in both the places i.e. individual and public places. It is working well. The prime minister is the first person who has taken up this cause wholeheartedly. He is the first prime minister to talk about toilets, even with the President of America, Barack Obama. He has also talked about toilets in Australia and China. So the outcome of the campaign is gaining ground and the nation is on the march and the whole nation is agog with talk about toilets which is creating public opinion to see that by 2019 no one goes out to defecate in open.

AJ: Do you think one day every Indian house will have its own toilet?

Pathak: As the target set out by the prime minister to build toilet in all the houses by 2019, to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary, I hope by that year every house will have a toilet.

Indian government claims to have constructed around 800,000 toilets in rural India. [EPA]

Follow Showkat Shafi on twitter: @ShowkatShafi 

Source: Aljazeera