Our Response to COVID-19


Ratanpur, Bihar: A Nudge to the Toilet

With our lovely toilet building students.

Written by Amar Rayne

In a social behaviour experiment to see if we could encourage the shift from open defecation towards toilet usage, myself and two international students coming through the Live-In-Labs program, namely Ana Carolina Rocha from Brazil and Aleix Carreras from Spain, set forth to Ratanpur village in the state of Bihar, where AMMACHI Labs had just completed the construction of two sets of communal toilets.

One set of communal toilets consisted of two toilets side by side and catered for a family of

Communal toilets, pre-nudge.
Communal toilets, pre-nudge.

25 people. The other consisted of four toilets and catered for a community of 55 people.

Open defecation has been identified as a major contributor towards disease and safety issues such as rape. One billion people in the world still practice open defection, and 60% Indians do not have access to clean, safer and private toilets.[1]

The use of a toilet is a new concept for the people of Ratanpur village. Typically the villagers relieve themselves in the open fields. In an attempt to influence their behaviour towards a positive change, we decided to adopt a social economics methodology known as ‘nudging’ to see if we could increase the use of toilets with minimal interaction, education or intrusion into the villager’s usual lifestyle. Basically, nudging is the introduction of physical queues into the external environment in order to influence the behaviour of a person. Nudging uses insights from behavioural science to identify reasons why people make poor choices and develop bad habits.

Our plan was to nudge one of the sets of toilets and leave the other set as it was. Through observation we would then see if the nudged toilet was used more frequently hence making the nudge a success.

Our nudge comprised of an aesthetic makeover of the toilet walls both inside and out, coupled with an indicative pathway leading to the toilet. Our hope was that this would lead to the toilet appearing as a more attractive alternative. A similar nudge setup had been successfully used by researchers in an experiment in rural Bangladesh to nudge school children to wash their hands after going to the toilet.

We arrived in hot, dry Bihar on March 8th after a 57 hour train ride. We went straight to the toilet site in Ratanpur village to get a feel for the work that lay ahead of us. There we saw the toilets and were greeted by the beautiful smiling faces of our students who had actually built them!

Ratanpur is considered to be one of the poorest villages where we have projects running. Despite that the people were friendly, open and had a keen sense of wonder about what we were doing. Particularly inspiring were our young students who were well groomed, conscientious and always willing to give a hand.

The next day we talked to some of the villagers to understand their usual toilet habits. We learned that they all go to the field with a pot of water usually in the evening. We discovered the route that they took when going to the field as well, an important piece of information for our nudging tactic. We decided to build a path from the toilets to meet the usual route that the villagers took, hoping to nudge them into the toilet, bypassing the field.

We also found out on this day that sand was very scarce in the village at that point in time. Sand is a necessary ingredient to make a cement mix, which we needed to make our pathway. We decided to experiment using dry mud instead of sand. But the resulting test path was cracked, soft and broke easily.

Pathway building time!

We needed a solution to make a pathway, a crucial element to our nudge. We had noticed in the village here and there, the odd brick pathway. We opted for the same solution figuring a mud-cement mix as our mortar, although not ideal would be strong enough to hold everything together.

The next day we secured our paint supply and went to work on beautifying the toilets. We opted for a simple hilly landscape scattered with floral designs in different colours. We made use of stencils to apply the floral designs. Needless to say our work drew a lot of attention from the people nearby. We asked some of the observers what they thought and received a thumbs up and comments such as ‘super!’ and ‘nice.’

Work was hampered the next day by chilling rain. We had expected hot dry weather and were caught unawares and unprepared for weather not too different from an Australian winter. Still we braved nature’s sudden change of temperament and went to work piled in layers of clothes. That afternoon saw hail showering from the sky. Who would have thought small balls of ice would fall in hot dry Bihar?

Floral designs stencil painted by hand inside the toilet.

Our masterpiece was completed the day after, with sore knees and backs from all the awkward squatting positions especially when painting inside the toilet. I’m sure we invented a few new yoga poses along the way, albeit strange ones.

Now started the hard work: the path. We started clearing the grounds using hoes. A group of young men started to surround and observe what we were doing. Before we knew it they had taken over and we were glad they did. They were much faster and neater then we were and we felt a little embarrassed when we compared the work we had done with that of theirs.

We started laying bricks the next day. For three days we toiled in the hot Bihar sun (where’s that cold weather when you need it?) sometimes three of us, sometimes two, as Aleix had another project to attend to. At other times our students showed up to help and the facilitator’s husband also proved very helpful in the evenings. The mud-cement mix proved to be hard to work with, only slowing things down further. In the end though by some miracle we had a path.


2016-03-17 09.27.33
Brick laying underway.

We managed to obtain some sand from a nearby river bed which we used to level the path. The next day we white washed and in the afternoon started painting green footprints leading to the toilets. This drew a lot of attention and curiosity from the villagers. One man pointed out that we should have started the path with a right-side footprint instead of a left one, as it is always considered a good omen to put your right foot first in India. We hoped that this oversight on our part would not have an impact on the nudge!

At last our nudge was complete!

2016-03-21 11.20.01
Completed nudge with a beautiful footstep pathway to the toilet.

The days following we observed toilet usage. Initial observations showed the nudge to be working although we did not want to write it off as a success just yet due to the novelty effect of the whole thing. Two months later however, feedback from the nudge site has confirmed the nudged toilets are in frequent use. We will continue to monitor usage over an extended period before drawing a conclusion, however the initial signs are positive.

Team Profiles:
Amar Rayne is the Product Manager of Deployment Technologies at AMMACHI Labs. He lives in Amritapuri and has been a fulltime volunteer for the last two years.

Ana Carolina Rocha is from Brazil and is currently in her second year of an International Relations degree. She is currently undergoing a 6 month internship through the live in labs program here in Amritapuri.

Aleix Carreras is from Spain and is currently completing his Masters in Science in Spain and Germany. He has also come through the Live-In-Labs program for a period of two months.

[1] 2015 Water Aid Report

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