Sanitation Initiative

Build people’s campaign

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The Government’s initiative on sanitation to make the country “open defecation free” by October 2, 2019 is well meaning but difficult to achieve. While some of the States have been quite efficient in constructing toilets in the countryside, as per the national plan, many problems have arisen putting a question mark on the plan’s success.
According to reports, in the past three years about 50 million toilets have been constructed in rural India and 3.8 million in cities and towns. Moreover, 2.48 lakh villages, 203 districts and five States – Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Haryana – claim to be now open defecation free. In fact surveys undertaken show that 85 per cent of toilets built under Swachh Bharat mission are being used.
Though there has been lot of endeavour to persuade people to use toilets, the biggest problem is the lack of water. Widespread media reports suggest that at least 25 to 30 per cent, if not more, do not have any water connection as a result of which these are unused. The chronic lack of water in some regions of the country is a well known fact and the planners have not quite realised that the sanitation initiative can only become a success if water connection is ensured at the time of construction of toilets.
Notably, a senior representative of the United Nations (Leo Heller) found there was incorrect labelling of places as open defecation free, inaccurate government claims about toilets for school girls and that there was still a potential for continuation of manual scavenging. Though it is understood that 53 million toilets have been built in rural areas in the years since the launch of Swachh Bharat, the report further noted and quite rightly that “eliminating open defecation is not only about building latrines but requires adequate methods for behavioural change and sufficient water supply is a pre-requisite for the sustainable and safe use of adequate, low-cost latrines”.
A significant aspect of the UN report is that the twin-pit toilets mandated by Swachh Bharat may perpetuate manual scavenging in a caste-based society. It advocated better management of wastewater, which commonly flows into open drains in India. In fact, studies suggest a rise in construction of single-pit latrines in several States, increasing the risks of manual scavenging, the report warned.
The benefits of sanitation cannot be doubted. Re 1 invested in improving sanitation helps save Rs 4.30, according to a recent study by UNICEF, which was done to estimate the cost of benefits of government’s Swachh Bharat Mission. Sharing the findings of an independent survey carried out across 10,000 rural households randomly selected across 12 States, chief of WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) UNICEF India, Nicholas Osbert stated: “In a fully open defecation free (ODF) community, considering medical costs averted, the value of time savings and the value of mortality averted, the financial savings for each household is Rs 50,000 per year”.
The study on a misconceived premise that 85 per cent of household members use their latrines, found the financial savings due to improved sanitation resulted in a cost benefit ratio of 430 per cent on average; this means that “Rs 3 invested allows a saving of Rs 4.3”. Whatever be the usage, benefits are obviously the highest among poor sections of the population. The UN agency has also observed that beyond the hundreds of thousands of toilets being built, “a genuine prioritisation of behaviour change interventions is taking place.
On the question if water, wherein its availability and potability is intrinsically related to sanitation and human health, an important aspect of the problem in the rural sector is the use of ponds for both bathing and for procuring water for cooking and drinking. In most areas, there is no system of cleaning the ponds at regular intervals through chlorination or other means and very few panchayats are aware of this. Water bodies are grossly polluted where, for example, faecal coli form count would vary between 5000 and 50,000 mpn 100 ml-1. As is well known, the Ganga is one such river which in spite of all efforts still remains unfit even for bathing.
Delving into initiatives in the realm of sanitation, a decade ago only 237 of over 5000 towns had a partially complete sewerage system. But this has changed significantly. Now 70-odd per cent of urban population has access to sanitation i.e. safe disposal of human excreta while in rural areas the figure has jumped to 40-odd per cent from the earlier figure of a mere 20 per cent, obviously due to the special thrust provided by the present government. However, open defecation is still the most important form of toileting in rural India.
Thus it can safely be assumed that though presently over 50 to 60 per cent of households have access to sanitation facilities, only 30-35 per cent of the generated wastewater and sewage gets treated before being let into rivers and streams. The obvious effect has been that an estimated four lakh children die of diseases such as cholera, dysentery and suffer from stunted growth due to poor sanitation each year. This aspect needs special attention and the Government’s programme Rashtriya Swachh Ganga Mission (National Clean Ganga Mission) and setting up treatment plants in the major towns to ensure that the river is not polluted may be positive steps, if action proceeds according to targets set. Similar action needs to be taken for the Yamuna too.
It is necessary to consider here the problem of manual scavenging and the official figure for India stands at 13,369 though most States are in denial mode. According to the 2011 census, 21 lakh households use dry latrines or open drains while the Socio Economic Caste Census noted that in rural India, 1.82 lakh households have at least one member working as a manual scavenger.
The challenge of making the country defecation free is not quite easy due to lack of adequate water availability – both viewed from financial and social angles. The NDA government has, no doubt, come forward in by providing necessary financial resources, demonstrating its political will and commitment. But the private sector too must play an active role in constructing toilets in schools and educational institutions in villages and doubly ensure availability of water as it has been found that some girls’ toilets are not used due to lack of water.
The creation of a totally sanitised environment as pointed out by Prime Minister Modi, is imperative at this juncture not just through Government’s dedicated action but also of the private sector through community involvement. While resources are no doubt essential, claims only cannot yield desired results as this has to become a people’s campaign, transcending class, caste and communities. Moreover, adequate water supply has to be taken care of as sanitation and water go hand in hand. Careful planning and execution could usher in the requisite change if we care for our neighbourhood and cleanliness. As the saying goes, if there is a will there is a way. —INFA