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Chasing the toilet trail

Chasing the toilet trail
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Raising the issue of inadequate toilets in India, Dr Bindheshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International tells us, ‘After Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps for the first time we have now heard someone take a pledge to provide toilets to public. Putting toilet over temple has been talked about for a very long time, but has somebody fought for it? How deep the commitment of PM Modi this time is, will be judged by his actions in days to come.’

‘Modi reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi who said, ‘clean India first and give independence later.’ I have been working for scavengers since 1968 and I have never seen such a commitment towards toilets in India. Everybody knows there exist horrible conditions of inadequate toilets here. It also has cultural, environmental and geographical aspects to it,’ added Pathak.

Gruesome reality of basic sanitation availability in schools surfaced in one of the recent HRD initiatives called ‘Swach Vidyalaya Swach Bharat’ that provides figures for the number of schools without operational toilets in India.

The numbers are alarming; In Bihar alone we have 17,982 operational schools without toilets for girls and 19,422 schools without toilet for boys. The extent can be gauged from the fact that these figures do not include the number of schools which have dysfunctional toilets. Following  Bihar is West Bengal, where as many as 13,608 schools run without toilet facilities for girls  and 12,858 without facilities for boys.

Interestingly the number of dysfunctional toilets for girls in Bihar are 9,225 and the number of non working toilets for boys are 9,597. While in West Bengal the corresponding figures for girls and boys toilets are 9,087 and 11,300 respectively.

BJP ruled, Madhya Pradesh is no exception as the number of schools which lack girls’ toilet are 9,130 and 9,443 schools are without toilet for boys. The number of dysfunctional toilets in the state are 9,271 and 8,819 respectively.

In the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir, the total number of schools without toilets, which also include dysfunctional toilets are 2, 52,983.

In India, the  total number of schools as per District Information System for Education (DISE) data are 10,94,431, out of which 1,01,443  and 1,52,231 schools operate without toilet for girls and boys respectively. The number of dysfunctional toilets for girls is no less, in 87,984 schools though toilets are available, but are not functional while for boys the number stands at 76,996.

DISE data shows that overall 38.25 per cent schools are operational without toilets or with toilets which remain in a non-working condition.

School children don’t constitute votes for political parties and nobody cares if millions of children are left to face such grim realities every day. Political parties here are more interested in doling out luring freebies for voters than working towards some common good. Not even a single party has shown the willpower to take up sanitation challenges head on.

Pathak also adds that more than a crore households particularly in rural areas were bereft of toilets forcing people to defecate in the open. According to a UN report, far more Indians have access to a cell phone than a toilet. To build a toilet, one doesn’t need a lot of money.

However, if one doesn’t have the willingness then it becomes very difficult for anyone to dissuade people from relieving themselves in the open.    

There is, to some extent, a cultural angle to it also. It is believed that Indians (rural) prefer to defecate mostly  in open air. In such circumstances, it is the women who suffer the most due to the absence of toilets.

Remarkably, as per DISE report, Delhi has no dysfunctional toilets. Roopak Roy Choudhary, National Co-ordinator of Sulabh International sanitation organisation, says that there are at least 53 per cent
schools which operate with dysfunctional toilets.

‘We loved what the PM said in his Independence day speech about toilets and it should have come a long time ago. I feel that this is going to mobilize citizens to start taking toilets seriously. Providing dignity to everyone who is associated with toilet provision and services is important and PM’s speech just did that. We have to realise that unless toilet construction and maintenance is considered an honorable profession, we will never see innovation and widespread acceptance in this sector,’ says Swapnil Chaturvedi, founder of Samagra, Pune.

Founded in 2011 and funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Samagra has been working ever since to provide ‘sanitation services to the urban poor’.

‘When a leader of our nation starts talking about toilets, it definitely has impact. In order to sustain this impact, however, we will have to complement speech with appropriate policies, and then only we will create entrepreneurs who will realise that toilets are a way to not only make money in a dignified fashion but also a medium to create enormous impact, Swapnil added.

On the issue of meeting the deadline of one year for building toilets, Swapnil believes that it is possible to build toilets in every school in India in less than a year. This project will have a huge infrastructural impact and a lot of money will be involved. There will be a lot of people who would like to get a piece of this pie.

During the course of considerations the government should focus on the needs of kids - size of pans, availability of water, availability of waste disposal units in bathrooms for girls etc. And above all, the question that needs to be asked is, ‘What will happen after these toilets are built?’, ‘Who will pay for their maintenance?’

 ‘We expect government to formulate policies for getting finances to start construction of toilets. As for the design and maintainence, it should adopt stringent mesaures. Corruption can thus be kept out from schemes like the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan. A lot of people have become rich by just building holes in the ground in the name of toilets,’ the Samagra founder said.

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) previously called Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) is a community-led total sanitation programme initiated by Government of India in 1999. It is a demand-driven and people-centered sanitation programme and was started with the objective of improving the quality of life of rural people and also to provide privacy and dignity to women by constructing toilets.

‘Modi’s passionate call for building toilet for girls in schools is an intent oriented approach and the need is of a well thought out action oriented approach from the bureaucracy. We expect from them to lay down an environment friendly structure to execute the PM’s clarion call of creating a new era of Swach Bharat,’ says Saurav K Ghosh, Secretary, Community Friendly Movement on the role of bureaucracy.

CFM is a Delhi based grassroots’ projects implementing agency, specialising in environment, water management and micro-enterprising. Commenting on the long lasting environment friendly solution for toilets, given the geographical differences of our country, Ghosh says, ‘Bio-Toilet is an acceptable option with prefabricated modular ferroconcrete portable & self installable technology which takes only two litres of water per flush and is effluent safe for open drain discharge.’

Two of the country’s top corporate houses, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Bharti have committed Rs 100 crore each to construct toilets in schools for girls. Ghosh fears that the corporate houses may have taken this call in a rush and this money can create a business environment.

Private players should wait until  the government comes up with  a constructive and result oriented plan.

Challenge of open defecation cannot be solved only by building toilets. Real work shall start only after the toilet is provided. For now, these questions remain unanswered:

-How do we make people take care of toilets?
-How do we make sure that toilets are maintained? and
-How do we make sure that toilet waste is properly taken care of?

Change will never be sustainable if it comes from the top. Bottom-up change is what is needed to solve sanitation issues. In order to be a truly clean nation, we will have to make sure that we stop neglecting filth first.
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