Our toilets bring our civilization into discredit, they violate the rules of hygiene. A toilet must be as clean as a drawing-room, said Mahatma Gandhi reflecting on abysmal sanitary condition in India in general.
Access to public toilet, private toilet, urban toilet, rural toilet and toilet facility especially for women and girls remains quite poor in the country. This is acknowledged by the Eleventh Plan document of the Planning Commission which notes that only 36.4% of the total population has latrines within or attached to their houses as per 2001 census. Another estimate puts the sanitation coverage in the country at about 49% (as on November 2007). Clearly, open defecation remains prevalent.
On May 12, 2009, a panel discussion on `The Attitude called Sanitation' at India International Centre, New Delhi brought together Prof Amitabh Kundu of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, Arumugam Kalimuthu of WES-Net, Rajiv Vora, a noted Gandhian and Sudhirendar Sharma of Ecological Foundation to dwell on 'sanitation' issue that remained focussed on the issue of defecation, which is a very significant component of sanitation.
It is noteworthy that Sulabh's intervention through Sulabh Sauchalaya that started in 1973 in Ara municipality, a small town in the Bhojpur district of Bihar which is deemed a turning point remains in one of the worst unhygienic conditions imaginable. This situation prevails because a very important but micro aspect of sanitation was attended to without even attempting to alter the institutional structures that deal with the broad issue of sanitation. A fact-finding team can visit and ascertain as to why this small town still awaits and invites the intervention of Plague like crisis to liberate itself from filth.
Like Nehru who got elected as the Mayor of Allahabad by promising better sanitation but did not succeed in bringing the required change, sanitation condition of Ara in particular did not and has not improved despite the limited but potent intervention of Sulabh. Although Nehru and Sulabh moved on, the sanitation conditions in Allahabad and Ara and most of India leaves a lot to be desired in spite of purposeful interventions by likes of Sulabh. However, it must be acknowledged that Sulabh’s intervention on human waste disposal and social reforms is a remarkable. In fact the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations has granted Special Consultative Status to Sulabh in recognition of its 'outstanding service to mankind'.
Nehru said, “The day everyone in India gets a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of progress” that day is yet to come and still political parties paid no attention to `sanitation' in the current elections.
It is now being argued that sanitation does not figure prominently in the priority of the communities. But most of the indicators of basic amenities show positive correlation with those of economic development across the states. The percentage of households with flush toilets, for example, exhibits a very strong relationship with per capita income, notes Amitabh Kundu who has authored In The Name of Urban Poor: Access to Basic Amenities. He sought to know as to why institutions like Sulabh, which emerged from a social movement, is being cited to legitimise the withdrawal of the state from sanitation and other basic sectors like health, education, housing and water-supply. Kundu referred to Bindeshwar Pathak’s book The Road to Freedom, a seminal piece of work on scavenging and the social inequity, to stress the role of community mobilisation and the need for state intervention. Kundu pointed out that while individual investment in housing, education and health has gone up the same is not true for sanitation. Consequently, he opined that the state has a significant role to play because poor don't have disposable income to invest on sanitation given the fact that over 87 % income goes into buying food.
Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement and 2009 Stockholm Water Prize laureate stated that public toilet could be a place of national integration. He cited Puranas to show how there was religious order from the scriptures to keep defecation `away from the household' as opposed to the current practice of creating and promoting facility for it in the household itself. He argued that like habits `cultural change will take time. Taking the recommendations of the Planning Commission in the 10th Five Year Plan a step further with regard to allocation for subsidy for low-cost household toilets for rural families below poverty line at par with subsidy in the urban households, he argued that the rich should be `targeted' as much as the poor while raising the issue of sanitation. Dr. Pathak will formally receive the Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony and Banquet during the World Water Week in Stockholm in August, 2009. This annual prize includes a $ 150,000 award. Responding to Prof Kundu’s question, Pathak, a Padma Bhushan awardee said, government does have a role but it has to be a combined effort.
Sudhirendar Sharma who chaired and moderated the discussion posed questions like why people don't adopt toilets? Why government's subsidised number game isn't effective? Has Orientalism contributed to our being what `we' are?
Kalimuthu informed that communities are not seeking sanitation. He argued that a new model is emerging wherein people will be paid for using toilet instead of they having to pay for it. Despite the rural sanitation coverage being 57 per cent, over 50 per cent of the covered households have slipped back to open defecation. Unless there is paradigm shift in our policy thrust towards sanitation, the situation may get worse.
The implementation of Nirmal Gram Puraskar, which is given to the Gram Panchayats, blocks, and districts, that achieve 100% sanitation coverage in terms of 100% sanitation coverage of individual households, 100% school sanitation coverage, making the village, block, district free from open defecation and with clean environment and organizations that have been the driving force for effecting full sanitation coverage in the respective geographical area came in for criticism.
Although sanitation also includes waste management among other things, there seemed to be a justified pre-occupation with defecation. It is estimated that about 115000 MT of municipal solid waste is generated daily in the country. This also merits serious attention.
Rajiv Vora submitted that for Gandhi, sanitation was more important than independence and by this logic most Indians are yet to gain independence. He brought forth the issue of cultural diversity in tackling sanitation. `Just toilet' may not work given the varied socio-cultural constructs of sanitation in each of the communities. Gandhi saw the state of sanitation in our trains, railway platforms and around the railway tracks as revealing the truth about sanitation in our country.
The unending discussions on defecation as part of sanitation and state’s role could not be concluded, as many questions remained unattended due to time constraint creating a necessity for an elaborate and rigorous deliberation on another occasion. One hopes that the transcript of the discussions or a perspective paper based on the discussions would be made available in the public domain at the earliest.
- ▼ 2009 (12)