Blogger Directory
Water

Back to toilet school

On August 15, the government announced it had achieved the target of building toilets in all schools in India. But are these toilets functional?

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Friday 04 September 2015 | 05:59:48 AM

Last August 15, speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the prime minister made a very important announcement—his government would ensure “there is no school in India without separate toilets for boys and girls” by the next Independence Day. Exactly one year later, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced that this target has been met and that some 417,000 toilets have been built in 261,000 schools.

This is no mean achievement, especially given the dire urgency and importance of this task. The fact is that lack of sanitation facilities is a reason for high dropout rates in schools—particularly of girls. It is also linked to higher disease burden. It is a basic human need—as basic as eating or breathing—and needs to be secured for human dignity. Most critically, toilets in schools are potential game-changers in society: quite simply, children learn the value of personal hygiene and bring it home.

School toilets are harbingers of tomorrow’s India. So, it must be asked if the target has really been met or is this just about numbers. To know this, the related question is: are the toilets that have been built at this breakneck speed in use? Do they have running water; is there provision for regular cleaning and maintenance? Only then can we boast that the task is done.

The government, while claiming 100 per cent success, says that it has repaired some 151,000 toilets and built the rest anew. On its website, it also explains that if anybody would like to volunteer to build toilets in schools, then it can provide designs. The cost of each toilet ranges from Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,30,000. In addition, it says that a hand pump—in cases where there is no piped water—and water tank will be needed, costing Rs 80,000, and another Rs 20,000 per year will be required for maintenance. The original plan was that corporate India would scale new heights and build these toilets. That has not happened. Private companies have been miserly and public sector undertakings are struggling to meet their school toilet commitments.

Funds however have not been the constraint. The last government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan—a scheme to enforce the right to universal primary education—includes substantial money for civil works to build school infrastructure, including toilets. In February this year, the government extended the provision to include reconstruction of dysfunctional toilets as well. It is also to the credit of the government that it did not lose sight of the importance of this task.


The Prime Minister’s Office, it is said, monitored week-by-week progress. The deadline was clearly on everybody’s mind. My colleagues have calculated that some 2,850 toilets were built each month between August 2014 and March 2015. As the deadline came closer, construction moved to feverish pace. Between April and August this year, some 100,000 toilets were built each month. This, in itself, is not bad. It could be that the government ramped up its capacity; it wanted to ensure it reached its goal.

But it is exactly because of all this that we must ask again: are the toilets functional? Frankly, there is no information about this in any report of the government. But media reportage from across the country suggests there is still a long way to go before we can talk about total sanitation, even in schools. This is not surprising. There is enough data and experience to tell us that just installing the hardware is not sufficient to ensure a toilet’s functionality. The lack of water is a major concern. India’s water programme has seen that even as settlements are ‘reached’ with supply, through hand pumps or wells, the number of unreached settlements goes up. The water dries up, hand pumps get broken and pipes collapse.

Same is the case with sanitation—toilets are built, but either never used or become dysfunctional. More importantly, there is the matter of where the waste goes and how it is treated. So, building a receptacle to collect human excreta is only a small part of access to sanitation.

We know, however, that school toilets are an easier part of the sanitation challenge. Schools have space for building toilets; ownership and control is clear and maintenance can be ensured. However, we still need a plan to make sure it happens. Unless this is done, the ministry cannot say that it has met its target. In fact, what is happening could have the reverse effect. In this past year, toilets have been built using funds allocated to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But in the Union Budget 2015, money for this scheme has been cut. Now the question is: how do schools plan to maintain these facilities; who will hold them accountable and how will this be reported?

The fear I have is now that the task is shown as completed—it is checked and off the agenda—there will be little attention to the crucial detail that is everything between success and failure—not just a toilet but a working toilet, which is used and cleaned. This is what total sanitation is about. This is the least we can provide to our children.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

IEP Resources:

Order of the Supreme Court of India regarding state of the toilets in the schools of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, 27/01/2015

Order of the Supreme Court of India regarding the provisions of Right to Education Act, 2009, 09/05/2014

Does access to improved sanitation reduce childhood diarrhea in rural India?

Coming up short without sanitation: a community sanitation program by the Indian Government helped children grow taller and healthier in the state of Maharashtra

We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • This is w.r.t. "Stop the Killing Fields". It is more than a decade that almost every year there is problem related to monsoon arrival, its movement, distribution and other dimensions. When there is crisis all sorts of discussions and debates (especially in the Parliament and on TV channels) take place. Blame game is played with full sincerity and seriousness. But no one is concerned about the fate of the farmers who suffer incessantly year after year. Their suicides become mere statistics for discussions. It has been rightly commented that managing water properly is not a Rocket Science. Only requirement is that people should be serious and concerned. If we plan properly and involve the farmers at grass root, things can be done with little expenditure and the solution will be permanent. But our leaders are more concerned about their commissions in every activity and photos to be printed in full page ads. in the newspapers. They are very sore that the Hon'ble Supreme Court has stopped that. They are forcing the Govt. to file Review Petition.
    They forget that the day is not far that people will give up farming completely, if they have any other avenue to earn through legitimate or illegitimate route. Then our entire food security will remain only on paper.

    Posted by: Asrarul Haque | 2 years ago | Reply
  • Good to see greater focus on fixing governance FIRST before we can pull off sustainable solutions to counter the accelerating environmental malaise that clouds our present and obscures the future. A look at past governments (Centre and States) tells us that generally Environment / Forest ministers are not the brightest even among the elected political bunch. As a result, every decision, from the posting of a forest guard to the appointment of the Member Secretary of PCBs is taken by the CM and the PM in case of GoI. Since we do not even know who will be the CM of which party, where is the question of knowing who the Environment minister will be? The results are there for all to see. That Mr Modi with all his majority could not find the sort of Environment minister India needs remains a mystery.

    There is also a critical but never discussed issue of re-structuring the bureaucratic and institutional frame work that is responsible for thinking, planning, funding and actually implementing all sorts of Central and State schemes. For one, Indian bureaucracy is closed to expertise, technical or in management. Seniority and closeness of powers that be is all that matters. Allowing lateral entry into Government especially at senior levels may shake up the babus to start performing? At the implementation level, there are thousands of NGOs doing sterling work in varied fields and in areas / among people where government has no reach. But government departments are generally allergic to NGOs and the present dispensation perceives them as a threat to the nation's security and has effectively shut them down.

    A good beginning would be to see a Cabinet Minister or even a Secretary to GoI respond to Sunita Narayan's editorial. But we have been waiting for such a thing for decades now!

    Posted by: VINAY | 2 years ago | Reply