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The toilet test
With one in two people lacking access to a toilet, India urgently needs a Sanitation Act........Kalpana Sharma
As a traveller, you often judge a country by its public toilets. India fails this toilet test miserably. For even as our country appears poised to become an economic giant at some future date, one of the many appalling statistics that brings us down to earth is our toilet story, or rather the lack of toilets story. 

A recent joint monitoring report prepared by the World Health Organisation and Unicef found that out of the 1.2 billion people around the world who are forced to defecate in the open, half live in India. An estimated 665 million Indians, one in every two, lack access to a toilet. That is not a pleasant statistic. Yet, few Indians would challenge it, as the embarrassing evidence is before our eyes everywhere we look.

While public facilities like bus stations, railway stations and airports have distressingly inadequate toilets, even institutions like hospitals, schools and offices, both government and private, often fail the toilet test. Ask women who work in these places.  Even highly placed professional women in India will have at least one toilet story about an office where they have worked.

The problem, of course, is not something to joke about. We know that the absence of sanitation has a devastating impact on health. It affects women and girls more directly as they have to wait sometimes an entire day until dark to relieve themselves. But this unmet need also has another fall out. It is negating efforts to increase female literacy.

The city of Mumbai, which has a high overall literacy rate, provides us with a vivid example of this.  According to a report in this newspaper, six out of ten municipal schools do not have adequate or any toilets for girls. As a result, the dropout rate of girl students after Std V is 50 per cent. 

The story is worse in rural schools. Little wonder then that India’s female literacy rate is not advancing at the rate at which girls are being enrolled in schools. The answer is simple: give them toilets that are clean and can be used and they will attend school.
The sanitation story is not just about toilets. It is about investment in sewerage systems. 
This can only be done by the State. So why, if water supply is given a priority, is sewerage neglected?  Is the government not too concerned because while people riot when there is no water, you don’t see demonstrations demanding toilets? In the water-sanitation duet, the latter is forgotten or overlooked.

What will it take to get the State to act?  Before the days of modern medicine, the absence of sanitation would mean the spread of diseases that could afflict everyone, rich and poor. As a result, sanitation could not be neglected.  Today, those who can afford medicine, and also have clean water and sanitation, can generally avoid some of these diseases. As these very people also make policies, the problem seems less urgent as it does not impact their lives.

Susan E Chaplin, who did her doctoral thesis on “Cities, services and the State: The Politics of Sanitation in India” from La Trobe University, Australia, draws an interesting comparison between sanitation in the post-Industrial Revolution England and Indian cities. In an essay in the journal Environment and Urbanisation (April, 1999), Chaplin points out that sanitary reform in Britain took off only in the 19th century when the spectre of disease haunted the entire population, the rich and the poor.

Between 1880 and 1891, urban authorities in many cities in Britain provided sewerage and clean water supply under the Sanitation Act of 1866. This step benefited all citizens, and not just the rich. In contrast, in India, the middle class has monopolised those areas where the British built sewers while the poor living in slums occupy low-lying, unserviced areas. As a result, the class that could have taken the initiative to press for sanitary reform remains indifferent to it.

Additionally, in India sanitation also has a caste dimension. As long as there are people available to clean up the dirt, we can pretend it does not exist. In many smaller towns, even a rudimentary underground sewer system does not exist and the disgusting practice of manual scavenging continues. This is something that should shame all Indians.

The toilet story exposes the hollowness of the “India prospering, shining India” imagery.  More than the real numbers of India’s poor, this illustrates the daily deprivation and lack of dignity that marks the lives of millions of people in this country. We need to urgently think of a Sanitation Act that makes it incumbent on local authorities to address the issue of sanitation and restore dignity to people’s lives.

URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?newsid=1189539

URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?newsid=1189539&pageid=2