Toilets for all, a national goal

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Toilets for all, a national goal

Friday, 21 November 2014 | Nikhil George and Amandeep Singh

There is no place for open defecation in a swachch Bharat, write Nikhil George and Amandeep Singh

On November 19, India observed the World Toilet Day, a grim reminder that eliminating open defecation is a critical development goal that the country is far from achieving. It is a good occasion to remember the importance of toilets and to critically think about current efforts towards attaining an important development goal: Toilets for all.

Economists classify toilets as a merit good: They are a commodity for private consumption that has society-wide benefits. Toilets, like other merit goods, are under-provided by the market for two reasons. The first is known as information failure, some individuals do not realise the benefits of continued toilet use, and hence do not prioritise their construction. The second reason is known as positive externalities: The immediate benefits enjoyed by access to a hygienic and functional toilet-comfort, convenience, and privacy — do not include important social benefit-reduced risk of diseases linked to faecal exposure and cleaner water for everyone.

Hence, in the case of provision of merit goods like toilets, Governments may intervene through carefully designed actions like subsidising toilets and initiating public awareness campaigns. Apart from the economic case for Government action, privacy and safety provided by easy access to a toilet should be available to all citizens — a desirable social goal, that we should aim for.

How big is India’s toilet challengeIJ According to Census 2011, 53 per cent of the households do not have access to toilets. Even more striking, close to 50 per cent of the global population who practice open defecation reside in India. One lakh children in India die every year from diarrhoeal disease, and that 90 per cent of these cases can be attributed to lack of adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene. Researchers associated with the Rice Institute in Delhi have published field-based evidence that links low toilet use to stunting and anaemia in children.

But ensuring toilet use alone will not solve these problems. We now have increasing evidence that along with access to medicines and healthcare, focusing on toilets and open defecation is the key to improve India’s faltering performance on pressing issues like infant mortality and child malnutrition. 

What do we know about toilet access and open defecation in IndiaIJ It is practiced in both rural and urban India. It is also prevalent in all the States, ranging from a low of five per cent in Kerala to a high of 78 per cent in Odisha and Jharkhand (Census 2011). Public defecation happens in different kinds of spaces, from the public gardens of lutyens’s Delhi to Mumbai’s slums and village settlements across north India. Yet, the reasons for open defecation vary.

While in central Delhi, public defecation might result from the lack of public toilets accessible to people who have recently come to the city for work, in the large slums of Mumbai, it can be traced to lack of space to construct a toilet, despite the desire to do so. In rural north and central India, research indicates, a cultural preference for open defecation, even when people can afford to build a toilet.

The complexity of the task of ensuring that every household has access to toilets need not discourage us. The database made available by the Joint Monitoring Programme of the  United Nations Children’s Fund and World Health Organisation, illustrates that Government action in Bangladesh and Vietnam — both poorer than India — have achieved rapid progress over the last decade and a half in reducing open defecation. Kerala too has made remarkable progress in bringing down open defecation in the last two decades. We know that committed Government efforts can indeed bring down open defecation levels.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to improve sanitation and to ensure that every Indian household has access to toilets has helped make toilets a priority development target for the country. The Swachch Bharat Abhiyan is the Government’s chief vehicle to achieve this target. The overall success of the mission will depend on our capacity to build and maintain public toilets in cities, adapt toilet designs so that their installation is easier in slums, hilly areas, water-logged areas and trains, ensure water availability for toilets in all rural schools, and take the message of public health benefits of sanitation to every single Indian.

Is the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan well positioned to drive such an effortIJ Early signals hold out both hope for a determined effort and warnings of how easily the focus could be lost. The programme, first driven by the Prime Minister’s commitment to toilets as a development priority, seems of late to have shifted its focus to less fundamental issues like road sweeping. The draft guidelines of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan (urban) have emphasised that State and city Governments be responsible for planning and implementing projects with support from the Union Government. It is a welcome change that the Government has not drawn-up a one-size-fits-all programme to make the country open defecation free.

But the guidelines give little indication of how the Government is planning to monitor the achievement of these goals. More worryingly, there are no reports of any State Government having re-vamped their action plans to leverage Central funds, tap into private sector funds and capacity, or engage non-Governmental organisations and experts. It is important to remember that toilet use by all is a critical development goal that we cannot postpone in this country. It is also important to reiterate that toilet use by all is the stepping stone towards a swachch Bharat.

(The writers are researchers at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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