by Lesley D. Biswas
A version of the following article was originally published on October 1, 2010. Despite staggering rates of illness and disease from poor sanitation, mobile phones carry higher status than toilets amongst the poor in India.- Ed.
Among the first things you notice when you come to India is the repelling sight of people defecating in the open. Be it a rural village or the teeming city slums, you see people lined up besides railway tracks, fields, and rivers answering nature’s call.
Out of the estimated 2.6 billion people globally who have no access to proper sanitation, 638 million belong to India. According to the UN, more than 55 percent of Indians practice open defecation. Even where local municipalities have constructed public toilets, the UN has questioned the utility of these services, terming them unhygienic and unusable and lacking in running water, drainage, and electricity.
The small village of Palamu, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, is a farming community. Basanti, who lives in one of the few brick houses in the village, owns a mobile phone and a color television, but like many others in her village she does not have a toilet. For women like Basanti the daily struggle begins well before dawn. “I have to wake up early every morning and walk to the nearby stream. First, it is important to find a secluded spot away from men and pigs. Second, the spot should not be already soiled with raw feces,” says Basanti. Most of the spots are overused and for the majority of village folk who walk barefoot, the experience they face every morning is unimaginable.
“During the monsoons it is worse. In the dark when we visit the water logged field overgrown with grass and floating with night soil, the danger of getting bitten by snakes and scorpions is also high,” informs Basanti, veiling her bright smile with her sari palu. Although it is visible that she is embarrassed, what is also evident is that Basanti’s family has the means to construct a toilet, yet a toilet is not their priority. And surprisingly, it is also not the priority among millions of poor across India.
According to a UN study on sanitation, 563.7 million people in India have access to mobile phones while only 366 million have access to a toilet. The report estimates the cost of building a toilet at $300 USD, which includes labor, materials, and advice.
Jack Sim, founder and president of the World Toilet Organization (WTO) points out that the only way poor Indian families will prioritize toilets is through local entrepreneurs. “Train the poor to become sanitation entrepreneurs and sales agents,” says Sim, whose mission is to improve sanitation globally.
Sim goes on to explain the logic behind this theory. “We can create a sustainable sanitation delivery model that is profit driven. The technologies are available. All we need is to build the market supply chain and distribution infrastructures [and] train the poor to collaborate with business people to create a vibrant marketplace that works to earn profit and save lives.”
He further adds, “Toilets have to be designed to be emotionally appealing so that they become status symbols and objects of desire amongst the poor, which is the only reason why poor are buying mobile phones and not investing in toilets.”
Lack of proper sanitation is also a major cause of girls dropping out of school after adolescence. It is estimated that less than half of the 738,150 primary schools run by the government across India have proper toilets. Only 28.25 percent of all primary schools in the country have separate toilets for girls. According to Education World, the human development magazine, improper sanitation is the reason why only 63 million girls of the 102 million girls who begin schooling continue their education up to class VIII, India’s secondary level education.
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, or WASH, a collaboration between UNICEF and the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) to accelerate efforts by both organizations to achieve Millennium Development Goal Seven – to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 – reports that diarrhea due to drinking contaminated water and poor sanitation claims the lives of around two million children globally each year. Half of the deaths reported are in India. With the World Bank estimating the cost of illness and disease from poor sanitation at $54 billion a year, a solution is far overdue.
Paul Calvert is the brain behind eco-toilets, a dry compost toilet with a separate urine-diverting system. It has been found that open defecation and private soakaway’s are the prime reason for drinking water getting contaminated, and eco-toilets, says Calvert, ensure that does not happen. “Eco-toilets do not waste water and they do not pollute water. What they do is allow the valuable nutrients to be recycled and used for fuel and fodder production,” explains Calvert.
Another problem brought on by improper sanitation that needs immediate redressing is human scavenging, the demeaning practice of cleaning dry latrines, mostly done with bare hands. To end human scavenging, dry latrines must go.
Traditional dry latrines are not connected to drainage systems and must be manually cleaned. In 1993 the government of India banned human scavenging under Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. The act also deems the construction of dry latrines a legal offense holding a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment or a fine of around $50.
Despite the ban in 2002-03 there are still 6 million dry latrines used in India, according to Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment. Although it is less common to see women carrying bowls of human feces upon their heads and a thick hard bristled broom in their hand, like some decades ago, 6.4 lakh human scavengers (604,000) are still waiting to be rehabilitated, 95 percent of whom are women.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, a social service organization that has built over 1.2 million individual toilets and over 7,500 public toilets across India and has liberated over 60,000 scavengers by constructing flush toilets, says, “To eliminate scavenging and bring about total sanitation, the government, NGO’s, and the citizenry need to work in close collaboration to make a real difference. When that happens, programs become a success. But when they work in isolation the project lags behind.”
According to Dr. Pathak, state governments in Jharkhand, Orissa, and Goa who implemented this methodology have eliminated human scavenging. A number of private and government projects are underway to construct toilets by providing subsidies to beneficiaries who seek to build them. But policies alone are not going to solve India’s sanitation problems. Communities, especially women, who suffer the most, must be instrumental in developing solutions.
In Haryana, a northeastern state in India where the number of rural households with toilets has risen considerably from 29 percent in 2001 to an impressive 98 percent in the last five years, women are doing just that. The “No Toilet, No Bride” campaign, launched by the Ministry of Rural Development, has resulted in the construction of approximately 1.71 million toilets across the state. The movement takes advantage of the fact that Haryana suffers form a warped sex ratio, a result of India’s cultural preference for boys over girls. The scarcity of brides in the state helps prospective brides use their bargaining power to force their suitors to construct toilets for them before they marry.
“I think such a pledge is very good. It creates a social norm that creates peers pressure for the greater good,” said Sim, who hopes to see India achieve their goal of complete sanitation soon.
When women are willing to change the situation a real difference is made to society. Only if women decide to prioritize toilets can the policy makers ensure their demand is fulfilled.
About the Author:
Lesley D. Biswas is a freelance creative writer and journalist based in Kolkata, India. She has written extensively for the past eleven years on sports, gardening, women and youth issues. Her articles have appeared both in print and online for publications such as the Woman’s Era, Reader’s Digest, Funds for Writers, 4indianwoman, Kolkata Mirror and East Kolkata, among others.