August 31, 2005
Jawaharlal Nehru, our dreaming first prime minister, has many quotable quotes to his credit. India would have been a better place if our governments (most of them led by his own party) and people had sincerely abided by the message contained in those quotes. I found this one inscribed at the entrance of a public toilet in a not-so-poor locality in Mumbai: “A country in which every citizen has access to a clean toilet is one that has reached the pinnacle of progress.”
The toilet was not very clean by any standards. But it was decidedly five star when compared to the many I have seen in the slums of India’s commercial capital. Come to Bhagat Singh Nagar in Dharavi, that accursed synonym for squalor. For a population of several thousand, it has only one toilet block with five seats. All of them are covered with muck, which overflows into the open drain running right in front of a long row of houses. Result: almost all the residents use the adjoining railway tracks for defecation.
Or come to Kurla, historically the island city’s first suburb that now has a hyphenated association with Bandra to house Mumbai’s gleaming new business district, the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Nearly 75 per cent of its population lives in slums, where sanitary conditions are awful. Qureshi Nagar, Bharat Nagar, Asalfa Village — each of these slums is an urban catastrophe from a sanitary point of view. No wonder, the spread of disease in these hellish habitats in the aftermath of the recent floods in the city was as much of a disaster as the deluge itself.
Railway tracks and pavements as open-air toilets and urinals is a near ubiquitous sight in most Indian cities and towns. In the nation’s capital, one can see people urinating in the open within hundred metres of the imposing Parliament building.
Rural sanitation is the other side of the dismal reality. Defecation in the open is not uncommon even in our prosperous villages. In earlier days, the lack of community toilets was not so much of a “felt” problem. But with the growth of population and disappearance of open spaces, the urban pattern of using roadside spaces is being emulated in villages too. This is an assault on people’s dignity. Those who resent this the most are village women since, unlike in urban slums, there is not even the anonymity factor serving as a protective shield for them. Sociological studies have shown that lack of toilets in villages is one of the main reasons for educated women — those who have studied even up to school level— wanting to migrate to towns. Similarly, school dropout studies have shown that lack of toilets, especially separate toilets for girls, is one significant reason for parents wanting to pull their daughters out of school once they have crossed puberty.
Consider the statistics about the Total Sanitation Campaign, the centrally sponsored scheme of the ministry of rural development. Of the 138 million rural households, only 23.7 per cent have own toilets. The coverage in a state like Bihar is as low as 6.5 per cent, with BPL (below poverty line) households accounting for a paltry 0.7 per cent! Even in a rich state like Maharashtra, the coverage is only 19 per cent. The percentage of schools having toilets is 43 per cent and many of them are of very poor standards.
Is there is a solution? Yes. It has three components: massive public and private investment in sanitation; major efficiency enhancement in the functioning of panchayats, municipal bodies, and government departments; and, above all, large-scale people’s participation through organised voluntary action and penalty for offenders. On all three points, it is necessary to realise that there is a fair amount of institutional experience — in terms of what works and what doesn’t — both in urban and rural areas. This needs to be leveraged by accelerating governance reforms in municipal bodies and panchayati raj institutions. For example, Chennai and Hyderabad have performed very well in sanitation and overall cleanliness by outsourcing municipal services to private and community bodies. Similarly, the World Bank-aided slum sanitation programme in Mumbai, the first phase of which was completed by the municipal corporation in 2003, has been widely acclaimed as a model for slums around the world. Yet, its second phase, with a ten-fold increase in the target to construct 3,000 community toilets, has been inordinately delayed due to bureaucratic roadblocks.
Experience has shown that wherever good sanitary facilities are provided, and where the community itself maintains the toilets, people’s resistance to a key urban reform — paying user-charges — has given way to enthusiastic participation. Several NGOs, CBOs (community-based organisations) and women’s groups have served as crucial drivers of the sanitation movement. One of them, SPARC, has earned worldwide reputation with its main activist, Jockin Arputham, deservedly winning a Magsaysay award for his promotion of community toilets. Similarly, there is immense scope for replication of the Sulabh Shauchalaya initiative for privately funded public toilets in urban areas.
There are success stories in rural sanitation, too. Sadly, they do not receive much media publicity. Take, for example, the achievement of Hardevsinh Jadeja, sarpanch of the Raj Samadhiyala panchayat in Gujarat’s Rajkot district, who was one of the winners of this year’s Nirmal Gram Puraskar instituted by the ministry of rural development. This panchayat, with a population of only 1,800, has a fixed deposit of Rs 17 lakh, an amount collected as fine over a period of time from people for dirtying their village by defecation, spitting or littering. It has no sweepers to collect the garbage. The onus is on the residents themselves, who take turns to keep their village clean.
Sadly, sanitation, and cleanliness in general, is not yet a national priority in India — for governments, political parties and civil society. This in a country that aspires to become a developed nation by 2020, whose urban landscape is fast changing with its shining new buildings, where every religion teaches to its religiosity-soaked people that cleanliness is next to godliness, and whose Father of the Nation demonstrated with personal example that cleaning of toilets was an integral part of the Freedom Struggle. Surely it’s time for all of us to promote a Toilet Revolution in India to achieve freedom from filth.
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