Meeting the sanitation needs of a growing and urbanizing population in India led the incumbent national government to launch a large-scale sanitation programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014. Having reduced the deficit in basic rural sanitation in its first phase, the programme is targeting to achieve universal safely managed sanitation in its second phase launched in February 2020. Since the trajectory to achieving safely managed sanitation is inherently path-dependent, the present article utilizes novel survey data from rural India to understand the nature of sanitation systems in transitioning spaces and identify the investments they require to provide safely managed sanitation. It finds that the de facto preference in sanitation systems that households manifest is in direct contrast to the governmental choice of the low-cost twin pit system. The choice of the on-site sanitation system is informed by the household’s economic status and how ‘characteristically’ urban the settlements they reside in are. The article further discusses the implications of these findings for the short-term responsiveness and long-term effectiveness of the massive sanitation investments (USD 19 billion) planned for the next five years in India.
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