Practicing healthy sanitation
The goal should be to end rampant open defecation, not just constructing toilets
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Bihar state government for making 850,000 toilets in a week, he, perhaps, missed a point: the presence of toilets is not the only yardstick to measure the sanitation status. If we look at the Barh town in Patna district, which is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's constituency, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation's data suggests that the mission of ensuring 100 per cent household toilet coverage will be completed by April 2020 as only 6,065 toilets are left to be built. However, Patna is one of the worst performing districts when it comes to having open defecation-free villages: only 9.11 per cent as opposed to the total state coverage of 11.49 per cent, which is already much lower than states such as West Bengal, which has 79.04 per cent ODF villages.
Similarly, in Varanasi, only 33.44 per cent villages are declared ODF, despite the fact that 350,000 toilets (household) have already been built. Although the rate of construction of toilets is increasing anywhere between three times and 44 times in some districts of the country, why is it that the villages are not attaining the ODF status? That's the question that the government needs to answer.
About 100 km east of Lucknow, the district headquarter town of Gonda made it to national headlines in mid-2017 when it was named as the dirtiest city in India by the Swachh Survekshan rankings. Now, with just one-and-a-half years left to meet the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) target, the laggard districts are in competition to bring about 100 per cent toilet coverage, and Gonda district recently embarked on an ambitious drive.
Christened "Mission 32", the district targeted to build 32,000 toilets in just 120 hours between March 26 and 30, 2018. "This scheme will not only help us remove the tag of one of the dirtiest districts in the country, but will also serve as an exceptional example of efficiency, commitment and community involvement," says JB Singh, the district magistrate of Gonda.
"It is more like a dream for me," says Khaimul Nisha, a 72-year-old villager from Virahmatpur gram panchayat of Wazirganj block. "My son who is a farmer has been trying to build a toilet for long. He registered for financial support last year in November. This year, we were lucky to get our name on the list. Soon we will get rid of the shame of going out," adds Nisha.
The district officials guaranteed to finish the toilet construction along with the twin pits for the management of black water coming out of the toilets by March 30. Saroja Devi, another beneficiary from the same village, says that normally it takes around a month to complete toilet construction work in her village due to the unavailability of skilled labour and construction material. But, since her toilet construction is taking place under the district government's special toilet construction drive, she is optimistic about the completion of construction work by the scheduled time of five days. "My daughters will no longer go through daily discomfort. We will soon get rid of this daily shame of going out. We will get our own toilet in just four days. I have waited for this day since long," says Siyapati, a 37-year-old woman from Chappia gram panchayat, whose toilet is under construction.
In most villages, it is common to see residents engaged in digging pits, carrying bricks or cement or supervising toilet construction. As many as 230,000 individual household toilets have been constructed in the district, so far, since the initiation of SBM (rural). "In our village, only half of the villagers have toilets in their household. People barely meet the essentialities of normal living. Building a toilet is a kind of luxury for most villagers. Toilet construction is only on their wishlist, which will not happen without external support. The local administration came forward with financial help and the response from the villagers is receptive," says Fatima, sarpanch of Khorhansha gram panchayat of Jhanjhari block.
Prior to the massive drive, the household toilet coverage in Gonda was just below 40 per cent and it climbed to 46 per cent in just one week of the recent construction phase. Gonda district has always been a backbencher in terms of sanitation. According to the 2011 Census, the district showed that 91 per cent of the rural population, which contributes 70 per cent of the population in the district, opted for open defecation. After the launch of SBM in 2014-15, the rate of toilet construction in the district picked up and around three times more toilets were constructed. The rate peaked in 2017-18, where around 21 times more toilets were constructed compared to pre-SBM.
Concerns about accountability
Brijesh Kumar Srivastava, the SBM (rural) coordinator of Gonda, explains that the poor progress in household coverage of toilets was basically due to poverty. "In the first phase of SBM, we mobilised the community and tried to sensitise them about the ill-effects of open defecation. It was not an easy task. We contacted each and every beneficiary and cajoled them to construct toilets by explaining the negative health impacts. The residents were finally convinced that the obnoxious practice contributed to bacterial infections and gastrointestinal disorders resulting in the loss of income for family members and huge expenditure on curing illnesses," says Srivastava.
But the manner in which the money of Information, Education and Communication (IEC) was spent differed according to district officials and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS). The district had spent over 11 crore on IEC in the last two financial years, according to MDWS data of March 2018. The district officials say they had spent it on wall writings, hoardings and banners. This does not tally with the MDWS data of March 2018. According to MDWS data, the money was spent in "others" category, which was not explained. "Luckily, the response received from residents was very positive due to IEC," says Srivastava. People liked the idea of building toilets as there is barely any space available to defecate in the open.
People, especially women, suffer massively due to this. They need to wait for long hours to relieve themselves. This often leads to a situation of shame and disgrace for them. "We have seen an exponential increase in toilet demand and a huge number of applications," adds Srivastava. But what demotivated the residents in the early phase of SBM was the cash flow. Hence, Mission 32 was launched where cash flow was made easy.
This is not the first time that such a rush for toilet construction has happened in India. A construction of 8,000 toilets in the Udham Singh Nagar district in Uttarakhand in just 480 hours saw the district enter the Limca Book of Records in 2016. Peramnalur district in Tamil Nadu was not far behind. It had built over 4,666 household toilets in just 48 hours in February 2017. The most striking initiative was in the Vizianagaram district in Andhra Pradesh where 10,500 household toilets were constructed in just 100 hours in March 2017. This inspired the district of Prakasam in the same state and 30,000 toilets were constructed in 700 gram panchayats in just 48 hours. Many districts in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand also embarked on a toilet construction spree.
Deepak Sanan, former Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Himachal Pradesh, rejects the construction-focused model in favour of a strategy aimed at creating community demand for toilets. Ending open defecation rather than constructing toilets should be the goal. According to him, the presence and absence of toilets have now become the measurable tool for sanitation. There have been several examples which failed to trigger the communities to use toilets. Thus, there is an increase in toilets, but it is a very small step towards making a state open defecation free. The district of Gonda, according to MDWS, had over 25,000 dysfunctional toilets as on March 26, 2018. The district officials lay the blame on previous programmes that could not motivate the people to use toilets. Under SBM, only 1.7 per cent toilets were converted into functional ones. Therefore, the villages need to look into the remaining 24,000 dysfunctional toilets.
The district's plan for solid-liquid waste management is still awaited, according to district officials. Till date, nothing has been spent on it. The present construction involves a twin pit system, where the depth of the pit is one metre below the ground. Gonda district has no dearth of groundwater reserves. The groundwater brochure of the district by the Central Groundwater Board says that the groundwater at most of the blocks is shallow. The pre-monsoon depth of the groundwater varies between three to five metre below the ground level and in the post-monsoon, the groundwater level rises to one to three metre below the ground level. Thus, the pits may interfere in areas of shallow groundwater level. The Central Ground Water Board report also talks about waterlogged areas in the district. Hence, blindly following twin pits will not be a solution for tackling black water.
Gonda district will have to build 20 toilets per hour to achieve its target by October 2019 of 100 per cent household coverage. Recent drives like the Mission 32 can make the target achievable, but whether this will bring about a true open defecation free status is a question that only time will tell.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)