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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Half the sanitation battle

Just building toilets won’t be enough.

Written by Pushpa Sundar |
September 9, 2014 12:17:52 am
I have little doubt that the construction targets will be met. But I have grave doubts whether the toilets will be in a condition fit for use after a couple of years. I have little doubt that the construction targets will be met. But I have grave doubts whether the toilets will be in a condition fit for use after a couple of years.

It is heartening that several ministries and companies have responded with alacrity to the prime minister’s call for the construction of toilets. It is indicative not only of the PM’s authority but also of the fact that the concern is widely shared.

The ministry of rural development has proposed to increase the allocation for constructing individual, school, anganwadi and community toilets in rural areas. But it has proposed to delink toilet construction from the MGNREGA. This is a pity because toilet construction is an essential and visible contribution to a community’s development — better than digging for roads, which is best left to professional agencies.

The HRD ministry has also woken from its slumber and become aware that one of the main reasons why girls do not go to school or, especially after puberty, drop out is the lack of toilets. It is now planning a programme to ensure that no government school remains without a toilet after July 2015.

Several companies have been quick off the mark. No sooner had the PM exhorted them to contribute to rural sanitation than several companies announced their intention to make toilet construction the centrepiece of their CSR programmes. Tata Consultancy Services and Bharti Foundation have both pledged Rs 100 crore for this. ITC and other companies are planning to use women’s self-help groups to promote the building of family-owned sanitary units by subsidising the cost of building materials.

I have little doubt that the construction targets will be met. But I have grave doubts about whether the toilets will be in a condition fit for use after a couple of years — we as a people are poor at maintenance. One only has to look at the government buildings and private apartments that have come up after Independence. We have a blind spot about sanitation in particular. This is especially true of the toilets built by public agencies or PPPs in urban areas. The maintenance of Sulabh toilets is somewhat better, but these are the exception. The typical toilet in poor and even middle-class households announces its location by its smell and is dingy, wet, slippery and full of cobwebs. As for toilets in public places, whether petrol pumps or government offices, the less said, the better.

Our inability to keep our toilets clean is embedded deep in our psyche and goes back to our distaste for handling dirt, including our own. It is a task relegated to the “lowest” in the hierarchy. This is possibly the result of the centuries-old caste system, according to which those who scavenged were deemed “polluted”.

But there are two other reasons why we cannot get our toilets right. One is technical and the other has to do with poor use habits and the lack of training. Even in spite of good intentions, toilets remain dirty either because there is no water to flush and clean them or because the flushes and faucets do not work, due to poor-quality manufacturing. Even in our brand new airports, everything is spic and span except the bathrooms, which have broken tiles and taps and flushes without handles. As a result, even where there are toilets, people do not use them and continue to defecate outside because that is the less offensive option.

Second, never having had toilets of their own, poor people in rural areas do not know how to use them properly. They need to be shown correct methods for squatting and told to flush after every use etc. More importantly, people do not know how to clean toilets properly. In general, “cleaning” consists mostly of pouring water all over the toilet and bathroom and hoping for the best.

When a government considers training, it invariably starts at the top. Enormous amounts are spent training senior officers, who could be deemed intelligent enough to learn the subject matter by themselves in any case. There are few programmes for class four employees such as cleaning staff because that training is considered unimportant. Proper cleaning of toilets and roads could be taught in one- or two-day training programmes. The cost is likely to be low and the staff would feel proud and happy to get the day off and a certificate.

When ministries and companies allocate funds for building toilets, a percentage of the budget should be earmarked for maintenance, operating costs and training of the upkeep staff, as well as for research on more water-efficient toilets and the production of quality ancillaries. Mere construction of toilets will win only half the battle on sanitation.

Sundar is the author of ‘Business and Community: The Story of Corporate Social Responsibility in India’

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