Sanitation message gets a fillip

| | in Oped
Sanitation message gets a fillip

Even as the Government has shown it’s commitment to make India defecation-free by building more toilets, India still has miles to go. The facilitation of a crucial behavioural change alone can alter the mindset of people and stop them from defecating in the open

Sanitation woes have plagued India since time immemorial with nearly half of the rural population or about 52 per cent of the country still resorting to open defecation. It is a stigma that India is struggling to disassociate itself from. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has pledged to end open defecation in the country by October 2, 2019 — the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

This objective forms one of the key aims of Swachh Bharat movement launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years ago on Gandhi jayanti. Indeed, Swachh Bharat has changed the dynamics of how cleanliness is understood in the country and has redefined the efforts for the same.

As India races ahead in space technology facilitated by a vibrant economy, the aspect of open defecation has proved to be the proverbial Achilles heel, especially in comparison to other countries. According to data compiled by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (Rice), sub-Saharan Africa, which has 65 per cent of the gross domestic product per capita of India, has only about half of the rural open defecation compared to India. Apart from this, the report also states that Bangladesh has only five per cent of rural people defecating in the open, significantly lower than that in India. These facts prove that India has raced ahead in some spheres but is miserably lagging behind some of the most basic aspects.

Open defecation, if left unchecked, has the potential of causing a public health crisis of colossal proportions as it rapidly spreads bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can kill hundreds of thousands of children each year. In addition to causing infant and child death, exposure to environmental germs stunts children’s physical and cognitive growth, leading to a population of adults who are shorter, less healthy and less economically productive than they otherwise would be. No wonder that this aspect of sanitation became the main thrust area for the NDA Government once it assumed power. The commitment of the Government to the cause has increased public awareness to never before levels.

The role of the Government to increase cognisance level for sanitation issue and understanding the subtleties, the causes of banning open defecation has now assumed major proportions as the message is now entering mainstream publicity.

The latest Akshay Kumar movie, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, tells the story of a young bride who walks out of her marriage when she discovers that her in-law’s home does not have a toilet. The movie deals with issues of open defecation and how a young woman’s revolt leads to social change. The movie earned appreciation from the Prime Minister who hailed the effort made by the movie towards the cause of bringing down open defecation.

However, despite Government efforts, the situation on the ground is far from satisfactory. According to Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends (Squat) survey, conducted by Rice, 40 per cent of the households, that have a working latrine, have at least one person who regularly defecates in the open. The study also discovered that less than half of the people, who own a Government-facilitated latrine, actually use it. This brings us to the most debated aspect of sanitation — that whether more toilets should be built or behavioural change should be encouraged so that the toilets built are actually used.

The facilitation of a crucial behavioural change can alter the mindset of people and stop them from open defecation and get them to adopt safe sanitation practices. Apart from this, the Government must also ensure that the States do not exaggerate data for toilet constructed and made functional. This can severely impact the credibility and eventual success of the sanitation drive.

Additionally, it is also important to ensure that toilets are actually of good quality and functional as a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India revealed that of the constructed toilets, around 30 per cent were found to be dysfunctional.

As of August 2016, only 17 of the 650 districts have been declared open defecation free (ODF) by the Government and of the six lakh plus villages in India, 54,732 were declared ODF, as of March 31, 2016. According to an NGO, WaterAid, around 76 million Indians still need improved water sources and 770 million require proper toilets. These statistics show the extent of progress that needs to be achieved to make India truly open defecation free.

(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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