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A Spanner in the Works: Unsanitary India

A Spanner in the Works: Unsanitary India

By Payal Mitra

Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

According to the ‘Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation — 2014 update’, released in May 2014, jointly by the UNICEF and WHO.

“Globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practising open defecation,”

597 million!  This translates to over half of our population having absolutely zero access to any form of sanitation or toilets.

According to WHO, one gram of faeces contains 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs. And facts released by the UN state that, 1.1 million litres of human excrement enters the river Ganga every minute. A child dies due to poor hygiene and sanitation every 2.5 minutes in the world.

These figures may sound exaggerated, but even if half of the projected statistics are to be believed, the consequences appear crippling

Poor sanitation procedures, including open defecation causes several diseases like typhoid, cholera, diarrhoea and worm infection, to name a few. It contaminates drinking water sources. It can cause pregnant mothers to be infected with worms, affects children, and causes premature deaths, diseases and environmental degradation. Studies held in 2006 have shown that the total economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India amounts to Rs. 2.44 trillion (US$53.8 billion) a year. This is in the form of premature deaths, costs related to treatment for diseases; productive time lost due to people falling ill, and time lost by caregivers who look after them. It also includes the treatment of contaminated water and the use of bottled water. In India, girls may drop out of school as soon as menstruation starts. These young girls face acute embarrassment due to the absence of sanitary napkins, not to mention the absence of a separate girls’ toilet. This severely impairs the development of women in rural areas; pulling India behind by decades.

The objective of this article is not to pinpoint open defecation and lack of toilets as ‘the’ cause of rapes in most of rural India. Because we all know there is much, much more to it. Recently, the horrific Badaun case, where two Dalit girls were abducted; reportedly while relieving themselves in the open fields; raped, murdered and  hung from the branches of the village tree, shocked the nation. Top policemen of UP said that in the absence of toilets, women have had to relieve themselves in the open, which has led to 90% of the rapes.  Lack of privacy does leave women more vulnerable to these savage beasts, but my guess is that even if toilets are built in every household, it sadly won’t bring rapes down.

I don’t wish to sound ambiguous. Most rapes in rural areas may happen while women are out alone in the dark, lonely fields relieving themselves, away from any help. And this problem, being in our reach, must be solved and people must be given their dignity and privacy.  But, rapes and sanitation are two separate issues. While poor sanitation can make women more exposed at times; it is more than clear from the several cases that we have come across, that perpetrators can easily victimise women while going to the market, or when alone at home. Sanitation won’t change the rapists’ mentalities. Hygiene and sanitation must come first for a number of other reasons too.

There are two reasons to be mentioned:

“Daughters and daughters-in-law should not go outside: build a latrine right in your house!”, read the government slogan painted on the village walls in rural Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Such incidents are the cause of fury. Firstly, how can the government willingly reinforce the archaic, patriarchal belief that young women should not be allowed to go out of the house, instead of fostering a pro female mentality approach? After all, this is equivalent to chaining the prey, while the tigers roam free, circling the victim all throughout.

Secondly, it gives way to the misconception that latrine-use is more essential for women alone. This is not true since diseases and contamination don’t just weaken women. Men and children, being more in number, are affected too.

The government has launched several schemes to improve sanitation, since the past few decades, but haven’t been very successful in its venture. The recently Total Sanitation Campaign of the government has been recently revised and renamed: ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’(NBA). Under this, the main objectives are:

  • Individual Household Latrines (IHHL)
  • School latrines and hygiene education
  • Community sanitary complexes
  • Latrines in anganwadis
  • Private production centre being able to provide locally appropriate and cost-effective sanitation technologies
  • Solid and liquid waste disposal and treatment

To facilitate this programme, the government has utilised a structured approach with village panchayats as the base units. The government has extended incentives,i.e., subsidies to all BPL families, APL families restricted to SC/ST, small and marginal farmers, landless labourers, differently abled and women.

On paper, the government provides an incentive of Rs 4,600 per toilet installation (Rs 5,100 for hilly and difficult areas). Of which, the centre gives Rs 3200; and the state gives Rs.1400. Additional benefits are expected under the MNREGA scheme.

So if the government subsidy exists, then why is there a shortage of toilets and an acute sanitation and hygiene crisis?

Some argue that the physical installation of toilets is not enough, rural people prefer to defecate in the open as they dislike the idea of defecating close to where they stay, feeling that it violates their cleanliness standards. Hence a mass scale movement mobilising social awareness is needed.

A cost-effective and durable alternative to dry toilets must be developed. Without an alternate infrastructure, dry toilets, i.e., one without a flushing system add to unhygienic conditions and also facilitate the inhumane practice of manual scavengers; the people who manually clean and dispose human excreta.  In several rural areas, sanitation in the form of manual scavenging is solely seen as the duty of dalits. Despite ‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993’, which imposes imprisonment up to a year or a fine of Rs 2000, not a single conviction has been made in the past 20 years. The Indian railways have been one of the biggest perpetrators of the act as all its toilets on trains dispose the excrement directly on the tracks. The ministry has proposed installation of expensive bio toilets on trains.

Others claim misappropriation and underutilisation of allocated funds by government officials. The case of UP is an apt example. After the recent Badaun tragedy, it has been found that the Uttar Pradesh government hasn’t utilized Rs 293 crore worth of funds, (out of the allocated funds, Rs 543 crore under the NBA scheme for the construction of toilets) in a bid to make the country open defecation free. Sikkim has proved itself to be a role model with 100% sanitation coverage.

Other surveys show that several rural users did want toilets. For instance in Bihar, most wanted a toilet, and aspired for availing the options of a septic tank which seemed to be of s higher quality and long-lasting. Though most villagers wanted toilets for reasons other than health, like convenience, safety and privacy; the sanitary crisis appears to be more supply side oriented rather than demand side.

Alongside, follows the problem of treatment and disposal of the solid and liquid excreta waste. This is an equally grave issue, which if not addressed will undo any good NBA has done, taking millions back to open defecation as they’ll see no improvement in cleanliness and health.

The NGO, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation has designed twin pit latrines which use only 2 litres of water per flush. Thus, providing an alternative to dry toilets and the inhuman practice of manual scavenging.  By using Sulabh toilets, an amount of 8 litres of water per flush is saved per person in comparison to septic tanks that require 10 litres of water to flush a toilet.

According to Sulabh, if 700 million people use such a toilet, a calculated amount of 5,600 million litres of water will be saved per flush. Taking into account the use of a flush twice a day, the figure will be 11,200 million litres per day or 40, 88,000 million litres per annum.

Several other incentives like the ‘Nirmal Gram Purashkar’, a cash prize, is awarded to villages, which gets converted to open defecation free zones, have been instituted. Another approach which is gaining popularity is the Community-Led-Total-Sanitation Campaign, which aims at improving the sanitation through social mobilisation by attempting to shift toward a sustained behavioural change and the attainment of ODF (open defecation free). It believes in a moral awakening and community intensive approach, rather than a subsidy based one.

All in all, sanitation and hygiene have been largely overlooked in the country. Hopefully Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be able to implement and succeed in his mission of ‘toilet first, temple later.’

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