Over half a billion, which is nearly half of the country’s population, defecate in the open
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the clarion call for a Swachh Bharat by launching the Clean India Campaign on the occasion of 68th Independence Day, it heralded a new “political will” which replaced the erstwhile “schemes” of the administration.
The civil society had all the reason to cheer. After all, London also learnt to deal with waste after the British Parliament was forced to adjourn in 1858 due to the “Great Stench” of the Thames.
However, a year later doubts resurface over the success of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign. According to government sources, in the past 15 years, Rs 2,000 crore was allocated for building toilets as part of the campaign out of which not even half the amount had been spent.
Modi’s call for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was accompanied by doubling allocations to include the building of toilets under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (Total Sanitation Campaign).
Hopefully, millions of toilets will be built by the government, along with its new partner—the corporates. But a lot of questions still remain to be answered.
The most important ones are these: will an arguably more efficient implementation lead to the critical number of toilets necessary to generate tangible public health benefits? If people do not consider toilets while building homes, will they value a gifted toilet and use it for its designated purpose? Given the current status of municipal services, will we see improvement in systems that ensure efficient collection and treatment of waste on a continuous basis? Will we have enough water necessary to deal with our wastes?
These, and more such questions, will continue to haunt our Swachchh Bharat mission even as new energy is being infused to address the issue.
The answers are critical for success, but can only be found by a confident and resurgent nation that has the courage to explore the deeper layers of its own social genetic code that govern its behaviour.
First, we have to deal with the bitter truth. Over half a billion, which is nearly half of the country’s population, defecate in the open. That is nearly two-thirds of people in the world who follow this practice. Open defecation is practised elsewhere in Asia also. In Indonesia, a quarter of the population, defecate in the open every day. Pakistan, a much poorer nation, has only a fifth of its population without access to toilets. Bangladesh and Vietnam, much poorer, have virtually ended open defecation by 2012.
One of the least discussed topics has been the role of manual scavengers. Mahatma Gandhi is known as much for his crusade against untouchability as against the British imperialism. Fortunately, it is now a shame of the past and punishable under a strong legal framework. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 has punitive clauses for employing manual scavengers.
However, no prosecution has been made till date under this law and manual scavengers continue to exist, often employed by city managers. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and (their) Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is trying to make amends.
But it must be said that while these are laudable efforts, their impact goes beyond protecting the dignity of manual scavengers.
The 1993 law promulgated by the Ministry of Urban Affairs prohibited the construction of dry latrines as well. These latrines are quite common in India, including in the countryside, and call for the need to scavenge.
By prohibiting the construction of dry latrines, we have effectively pushed for the use of water for flushing toilets in the process, creating fecal sludge at individual households.
There is also another uncomfortable truth. We have mindlessly sought to emulate the west. Fecal sludge collected, transported and treated properly, is an urban (and western) way of life that is not compatible with our habitation patterns, water availability and cultural moorings.
But having thrown the baby out with the bathwater, we have little choice but to become ‘westernised’: in effect use enormous quantities of water to liquify fecal sludge at the household level and then reclaim that water through treatment facilities at the habitation level.
We are at a major civilisational crossroads where we have neither forsaken our traditions nor embraced modernism. More importantly, we are struggling to adopt western modernism without fully appreciating what it means to us. It means 24x7 water supply that may not be feasible in several places.
It also means functional sewage infrastructure that do not exist yet even in urban areas. (Delhi, for instance, manages to capture less than half of the sewage generated.) And, more importantly, it also means regular cleaning of toilets that we are yet to accept as a new social reality.
In rural areas, the task is even more complex. It involves convincing a household to store their excreta in their own backyard, an impure notion that militates against their cultural instinct to remove their waste beyond their personal domains.
Even if this is achieved through protracted behaviour change communication programmes, there is a need for periodic cleaning of pits which emerges as a major stumbling block.
In Gujarat, for instance, deep pits are dug in order to last a lifetime! The situation is more daunting in flood-prone areas such as in eastern India where pits are neither feasible nor desirable.
The jugaad (fix) for a dysfunctional sanitation system then is open defecation. The personal objective of separating divinity of the self from its own mortal excreta is achieved even while public health and safety is compromised.
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