On 19th and 20th November, the “World Toilet Day“conference was organized by UNU-MERIT, amidst the brouhaha of the demonetization. Chuckling at the name of the conference is quite natural, but the cause of concern at the conference was as huge as the demonetization today. The inaugural address was given by Dr. Nirmala Sitharaman, Honourable Minister of State for Commerce and Industry. She highlighted the problem of proper sanitation in the coastal areas and the challenges faced with the existing models in those regions. She underlined the importance of the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana to achieve the goals of sanitation in India and the customized approaches taken by Swachh Bharat Mission to achieve the goal of making India Open Defecation Free (ODF).

Today the pestering faults in the sanitation programs in India are a result of poor models/designs, no capacity building of masons, lack of safe disposal of waste, lack of financial accompaniment, lack of gendered spaces and the humongous problem of behavioural practice to defecate in the open.

A photo from the event

The major cause of concern raised at the event by Dr. Shyama V. Ramani, founder of FINNISH society – India and France and a fellow at UNU-MERIT University, was the existence and the continuing increase in number of “fossilized toilets” in India. The erstwhile blanket approaches have been mere examples of disconnected governance representing the lack of sustainability and un-suitability of the same given the myriad of terrains of the country. Today, the Swachh Bharat Mission has enabled construction of 27 lakh toilets in the urban areas while declaring 432 districts ODF at the same time it has declared 61 rural districts to be ODF. But the important question we need to ask ourselves right now, considering the quantitative achievements is that, “is it enough?”

Even today, 5.2% GDP of the country remains unrealized due to the backward and forward linkage problems arising from the sanitation issues, as quoted by Dr. Nirmala Sitharaman, like health impediments, water availability, lack of operation & maintenance (O&M) facilities for the toilets facilitated by the government and the lack of reuse technologies etc. In 1986, after the Green Revolution, a subsidy was promised for construction of toilets, but nothing was done even till 1999. Although a study showed that only 2% of the surveyed population agreed to construct toilets even with a subsidy, the promise never materialized.

Soon after, the Total Sanitation Campaign was launched which focussed primarily on the reformation of behavioural aspects to achieve the goal, but due to the lack of a political push, it failed to get integrated in the mainstream of the national agenda. The landmark was setup with the Nirmal Gram Puraskar campaign. It was a knock on the doors of consciousness of the common man, highlighting the shit-to-mouth problems and emphasizing that following good sanitary practices is a public issue and not just a private one. The huge incentives offered to the sarpanch as Nirmal Gram Puraskars became a great push to achieve the goal of ODF. But later researches have revealed that due to lack of follow-ups on the Nirmal Grams, there has been a growing tendency of slipping back from the ODF status after achieving the Nirmal Gram Puraskar.

There are many issues which need to be considered before a program should be launched. A fundamental problem arises when there is lack of coordination amongst the various ministries of the government. As a preview, 60 million houses in rural areas and 20 lakh houses in urban areas remain unconstructed, despite the promise by the government to construct toilet in every house; this raises the question that where will the toilets be constructed if there are no houses to live in. This double whammy highlights the ill- considerate decisions of the legislature. This also brings out the other problem, that is, of the masons. The masons constructing these toilets are usually illiterate and have no training regarding right design or technology to be employed for the product to be sustainable and useful to the beneficiaries. In this situation it becomes imperative to provide them with training or some knowledge in the area concerned. But the stigma attached to the work of constructing toilets in India will only discourage the literate masons from doing that job, moreover it is well known that “when the illiterate become literate the rich lose their palanquin bearers.” This jeopardy was attempted to be solved with the SKILL INDIA program of the government. But with not much success in that, the only solution lies is to make an appeal for volunteers who can learn masonry, teach it and write articles to encourage others to participate in a similar task, which eventually will remove the stigma attached to the work from the society. There is a rise in the number of toilets being constructed but the problem in accessing them, the infrastructure of the toilets and their quality remains stagnant.

Moreover, the model followed in India is of a leach pit toilet or pit latrines. Quality, design and accessibility of these designs/models are highly questionable. Most of these toilets constructed remain without maintenance, often festered with the problem of termites and rodents, many collapsing due to heavy rain and others emanating pungent smell hindering further use and also adding to unhygienic conditions in their vicinity. Inadequate ventilation and lack of space inside the toilets, inadequate water supply etc. discourages many from using toilets. In many places public toilets are constructed for a large population. But most of them are not paid toilets; hence there again comes the problem of operation and maintenance of these toilets. Hardly any of these are friendly to children or the physically challenged and in many long queues outside these toilets discourage people to use them and switch to open defecation. The caste-based problems in the country become an impediment in the usage of public toilets, where people of different castes refuse to use common toilets. Vastu issues, like where to construct, while constructing the toilets are often a cause of bitterness for the beneficiaries.

Even though solutions to the above problems could be found, there are other considerations which can’t be neglected. The maintenance of the toilets is often made the task of the manual scavengers. In many they are even forced to clean the toilets riding on the caste hierarchy of the country. Even the schools are not pardoned from this barbarism, where students from the lower castes are made to clean the toilets, by the teachers. It is ironical, that on one side the central government is running campaigns to end the practice of manual scavenging, while on the other side toilets are constructed without the provision of being cleaned themselves, like bio toilets. Moreover, behavioural change is yet to come by, which will revolutionize the defecation practices in the country. It is a matter of concern, that even today when open defecation is discussed it is usually the practice of shitting which is considered and not the act of peeing in open. We often overlook public urination by men all around the country without even a slightest cringe. Despite the presence of well-developed facilities of toilets, even the urban areas are not free from public urination.

But all doesn’t seem to be lost. Sikkim has become the ODF state and is working hard to maintain that status; Punsari, a small village in Gujarat became one of the 3 Adarsh Grams of India under the concerted efforts of the sarpanch Mr. Himanshu Patel and RDO Trust under Mr. Perumal has taken huge strides to achieve rural and tribal sanitation in Tamil Nadu. These stand- alone cases of success not only become an inspiration but also examples which could be reciprocated around the country for desired results.

Use of innovation is the need of the hour. Local gurujis and local leaders can be used to create awareness highlighting the social excuses of defecating in the open and the need of toilets. Role of SHGs, NGOs and Gram Parishads should be acknowledged and incentivized for aiding the general cause. Community participation and people’s approach to all projects should be maintained not only to enhance the decision-making power of the community in the project but also to generate a sense of ownership and leadership among them. India still has a long way to go, to achieve the holistic goal of SWACHH BHARAT.