Access to a toilet is a basic condition for an individual’s health and dignity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the issue in his Independence Day speech and now the Karnataka Sanitary Facility Guarantee Bill, which will be tabled in the winter session of the state assembly, seeks to ensure the right to a toilet. Constructing a toilet in a school, a village or a slum has now become a powerful political gesture. While this new political recognition is heartening, the drive for better sanitation in India must go beyond symbolism.
Nearly 48 per cent of Indians have no access to toilets and are forced to defecate in the open. In rural areas, this proportion goes up to 60 per cent. Folded into this lack of access is an intersection of caste, class and gender prejudices, a social system ordered on who is let in, who must stay out, who can clean the toilets and who cannot. According to a report compiled by the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations, only 23.7 per cent of Dalit households have access to latrines, as opposed to 42.3 per cent of non-Dalit households. And in most contexts, access to toilets is heavily skewed against women — a 2009 survey found that in Delhi, there were 1,534 public toilets for men but only 132 for women. Too often, this has been a tragic shortfall. The Badaun case, where two girls were killed when they went into the fields to relieve themselves, showed that for women, access to a toilet can be a matter of life and security. In urban areas, too, thousands of women queuing up for slum toilets early in the morning or late in the evening face harassment and humiliation.
Addressing such social attitudes will be vital to securing the right to a toilet. Equally important is ensuring the supporting infrastructure — water supply, sewerage and waste management, cleaning. Does the Centre, or the Karnataka government, have a plan to plug these gaps?