Inching closer to a cleaner city
The buzz around making the country open defecation free may have become louder in recent times, but have things changed on the ground? Mitali M. Ghosh explains
Messages for a "Swachh Bharat" are bombarding the television almost by the hour. Celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Anushka Sharma are being roped in for campaigns like 'Darwaza Bund to Bimari Bund' (eradicate illnesses by defecating in closed toilets). Bollywood stars like Akshay Kumar are making films on the subject and stories about girls rejecting marriage proposals from men who do not have toilets in their homes are all over the front pages.
All this is very much needed to raise awareness about open defecation being a public health hazard and give a peg to the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat Mission that aims to make India an open defecation free nation by October 2019. A total of 1,789 cities have been declared as open defecation free (ODF) since the launch of the programme.
Delhi's Arvind Kejriwal government, too, has been grappling with the issue since it assumed office. Defecating in the open is a way of life for lakhs of urban poor in India's capital. Only about three lakh of the city's 15 lakh slum dwellers use community toilets. The sight of people lining up railway tracks early mornings as trains chug into the city is testimony to the poor urban planning, abject lack of basic infrastructure and little awareness of sanitation, even as many more migrants from across the country add to the cacophony every day.
According to UNICEF, India is home to the world's largest population of people (59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people) who defecate in the open and excrete close to 65,000 tonnes of feces into the environment each day.
This is a major reason why India reports the highest number of diarrhoeal deaths—117,285—among children under-five in the world every year. Children weakened by frequent diarrhoea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition, stunting, and pneumonia.
The AAP government has set itself the target to make the capital open defecation free by March 2018, which today seems a tall task. In its three-year reign, over 19,000 toilet seats have been constructed or renovated and are managed by the Delhi Urban Slum Improvement Board (DUSIB).
"Things have improved over the past few months, but it is still a long way off until Delhi covers its goal of becoming open defecation free," admits Kalpana Verma, an activist with an NGO that works in the sanitation sector.
Shagun, a 28-year-old mother of a teenaged girl in Khandar Line slum near Delhi Cantt, said that she does not encourage her daughter to eat or drink after sunset as she cannot take her out in the middle of the night to ease her if there is an urgency.
"We train ourselves to hold it until the next morning. It is just not safe to walk into the bushes in the winter, especially in the dark. There is no toilet at our rented home, the public toilets are either choked or closed," she says with disdain.
Her fears about venturing out into the open are not unfounded. While women prefer to ease themselves only under the cover of dark —either in the night or before dawn-- for reasons of privacy, it exposes them to the dangers of physical attacks.
At a recent inauguration of 122 public toilets in the Kamla Nehru camp of Kirti Nagar, the Chief Minister said, keeping the safety of women in mind, it had been decided that these toilet complexes would operate round the clock from January 1, 2018. The facilities would also be available free of charges from that date.
"We are ending this practice at Jan Suvidha complexes of charging people Rs two for using toilets each time as a family of five would have to bear at least Rs 25 to 30 a day and that would be a deterrent," he said.
This waiver would entail a cost of Rs 50 crores to the Delhi government, which it would bear.
The Chief Minister also urged the people not to treat the toilets as government property. "Treat them as your own and keep them clean," was his appeal to the residents who had gathered at the event.
While the emphasis of the governments has been to build new toilets to tackle the menace of open defecation, putting up such structures would not help unless these are maintained properly. Taro, who is in charge of cleaning toilets in an R K Puram slum, said that the squatting holes often get clogged and sewer water overflows, making the whole place stinky and dirty.
"The real achievement will come by when there is sufficient number of toilets for all and the constructed toilets function properly," she said.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)