Abruptly, toilets have become a topic of national importance – of immediate concern and urgency. The Centre and governments are waking up from stupor, the first time after Independence, to address a basic issue concerning all, but most particularly women – lack of essential facility to perform the simplest bodily function. Not without reason.
For decades, it has been an awful sight to witness nearly half of the national population defecating on the streets, in gutters, along drains and adjoining open water bodies – without dignity or privacy. For train passengers, it is disgusting and an eyesore to observe people squatting among sparse trees and bushes along tracks, after every dawn break. Infrastructure development has not included basic human’s needs and public hygiene. Many villages still lack sanitation. It is a national shame.
Globally, 2.5 billion people do not have access to safe, affordable sanitation. In this aspect too, India lags behind China, where one out of every 100 people defecate in the open while in India, it is one out of every two – the highest rate (597 million) in the world. This means nearly half of India’s population (48 per cent) does not have access to toilets. Of these, 65 per cent live in rural areas. One in eight of all people anywhere who defecate in the open live in Uttar Pradesh. The socio-economic cost of not having toilets at home is immense, and women end up paying an unfair price. About 300 million are women and girls. Open defecation exposes them to risk of harassment, assault, health problems and worse. Nearly 70 per cent in urban slums face sexual harassment while on way to toilets everyday.
The growing incidents of sexual assaults on women have pushed the Centre and some state governments into action – to provide ‘she’ toilets in the country. But for the national outrage following the 27 May Badaun gang rape incident, governments would have remained largely inactive.
Open defecation has terrible consequences for human health, especially children. The practice contaminates food and water, and transmits diarrhoea-related diseases that kill 7,00,000 children every year worldwide – 2,00,000 of them are in India, says Brian Arbogast, director of the Water Sanitation and Hygiene Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Exposure to environmental germs stunts children’s physical and cognitive growth, leading to a population of adult workers less healthy and less productive than they otherwise could be. In high population density places like India, the link between open defecation and child height is even stronger. Sanitation matters for height. When a child is young, poor sanitation can lead to mental and cognitive stunting.
This country grossly lacks the concept or restrooms. Former Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh had stirred up a controversy with his comments in October 2012 that the country has more temples than toilets and followed it by asking women not to get married into families that do not have toilets in their homes – ‘No toilet, no bride’.
While campaigning in Delhi on the Gandhi Jayanti day, last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sloganeered Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya’ (toilet first, temple later). Again, President Pranab Mukerjee had told Parliament recently that ‘indignity of homes without toilets and public spaces littered with garbage’ must not be tolerated. He announced that a ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ will be launched to ensure hygiene, waste management and sanitation across the nation. The government woke up last year to find a solution to the ‘deplorable condition of public toilets and dustbins’ in Delhi. The Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC) held an open competition to produce a proto-type design. In a just-released ad, DUAC has invited offers to construct high-tech self-cleansing toilets based on the three award-winning designs. Ridiculously, to start with 200 public toilets, mainly near ghettos and slums, are to be erected! – as against the mammoth need for five lakh. Civic agencies in Delhi plan to construct 376 bio-digester toilets for women at public places, including markets. The Tamil Nadu government plans to construct ‘namma (our) toilets’. The Chennai Corporation envisages 348 public toilets.
The Gates Foundation set up a challenge to ‘reinvent’ the toilet that can accommodate the deprivations of India. The aims are to remove germs from human waste and recover valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients. These operate ‘off the grid’ without connections to water, sewer, or electrical lines. Also, these meet the goal of Rs three per user per day, but the toilet still costs about Rs one lakh. Many may find the usage cost prohibitive and opt for open places/environs to defecate. Habits and attitudes die hard. Several metro stations have restrooms but male passengers find immense pleasure in dirtying sidewalks and walls.
There is no guarantee that by simply providing latrines people will actually use them. A Princeton University researcher, who studied five north Indian states, found that 19 per cent of women with access to a latrine still preferred to defecate in the open. ‘Building toilets without addressing common norms, attitudes and beliefs around latrine use is unlikely to reduce open defecation in rural India,’ says the Diane Coffey, who focuses on child health and nutrition.
The springing up of women’s toilets would be like oases in deserts. The challenge is huge involving not only providing the facility but also ensuring attitudinal change. Will the country rise to it?
The author is an independent journalist