Written by Aayush Gupta
“Sanitation is more important than political freedom” — Mahatma Gandhi
On October 2, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the completion of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission with the construction of over 107 million toilets. India was, hereafter, “Open Defecation Free” (ODF). The announcement came 11 years ahead of the projection of the United Nations. However, a year later, experts are sceptical about the claim. While toilets have been built, the ODF “self-declarations” by India’s 603,000 villages, 706 districts and 35 states and union territories may not pass scrutiny.
Success was preordained in the Swachh Bharat Mission, which targeted 602 million residents, who defecated in the open. The government, way before 2019, had printed a calendar with the cut-off for October 2019 as the achievement of Total ODF status for India. In one sense, the country did achieve its target, in terms of its definition of ODF itself. As per the Toolkit for Urban Local Bodies by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the definition of ODF is restricted to the construction of a toilet and not its use or availability of water. Going a step further, facilities like availability of water and proper drainage are only covered in the broader definition of ODF+ and ODF++ targets under the mission.
It would be unfair to dismiss altogether the achievements of the Indian government, which has made toilets available to over 162 million households across the country. Bollywood highlighted the issue on the big screen, with films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story).
While the government is proactively sharing details regarding the construction of toilets and implying their use based on self-declarations, valid and comprehensive data regarding their use is lacking. Due to the structure of subsidies and pace of disbursals, thousands of toilets are labelled “under construction”. The awareness of the construction of toilets is clearly not enough. For example, there is no record of how many single-pit toilets are still being manually scavenged (if at all) at pre-decided intervals. There is a need to create a system to record what happens after a toilet has been constructed.
As Advik Aggarwal, a past member of Project Raahat, an initiative with the Delhi government to curb open defecation in the capital city, says having a toilet does not always mean it is being used. There have been reports of toilets being rendered defunct due to lack of use by the community itself. Aggarwal points out that the successful use of a toilet depends on several factors, including proper upkeep and community support. Lack of social understanding is also a problem. Toilets are considered to be hotspots of infectious diseases, prompting people to defecate in the open. Apart from avoidance of “stinking urinals”, men avoid community toilets for “socialising” with their peers when they go out to defecate in the open. Lack of sufficient water is a major reason why toilets at homes are left unused. Experts further cite unwillingness to pay (for public toilets), improper maintenance and lack of water as the primary reasons for lack of use of toilets. In some cases, defunct toilets are being used to store discarded items. Caste issues also play a major part — since, traditionally, it has been the plight of select lower castes to clean lavatories and sewers.
Three pressing needs emerge out of the issue. First, a need for the government to realise that access to toilets does not imply the usage of a toilet. Second, reporting of the metrics related to ODF+ and ODF++ needs to seep into the mainstream — not only for the urban but also rural regions. Finally, with access no longer deemed an issue, sensitisation needs to take priority — a much broader agenda than the five-year sprint to building over 100 million toilets. It is not mere access, but also use, that would have made Mahatma Gandhi flushed with pride.
The writer is an MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad. He was a member of Project Raahat – a student-run initiative to eradicate open defecation in the urban slums of Delhi.