Planning Commission's new toilets: lessons for us

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 08 June 2012

Why are toilets called restrooms? I never googled for an answer to this question, but the leaked photographs of the Planning Commission's recently upgraded toilets, together costing Rs 35 lakh, provide the answer. The toilets are swanky, spacious and access is limited to just a few busy, high officials; indeed, a preferred place for rest. Insiders say these toilets are so spacious that one may feel lonely, even for that five-10 minutes one is inside. At the same time, the strategically mounted mirrors reflect hundreds of images of you while defecating, making it is a place to reflect a lot on oneself. Media reports state that in a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, ministers demanded smart cards from the deputy chairperson of the Commission to access the toilets, sorry, restrooms. He reportedly said: “you are in queue”.

Well, half of India's rural population, who defecate in the open, would love to join this queue. Universal access to toilets is a big developmental challenge for India. In fact, the Planning Commission's website still hosts the bulky working group report on how to make this possible during the 12th Five Year Plan.

In these times of extreme cynicism, one would risk inviting public ire if one were to suggest that the Planning Commission's new toilets provide answers to India's sanitation problem. Maybe, one can say they are the models for what needs to be done to ensure toilets for every Indian.

These “national sanitation monuments” reflect certain universal values: adequate money to build toilets that ensure privacy; forensic operation and maintenance that ensures they are usable (unlike the toilets for aam admi in the Commission's Yojana Bhavan building); adequate water that doesn't require the user to walk a few kilometres to fetch water for use (as in rural areas); and more than anything else, the will to make this happen. The Commission's administration thought that the half-a-century old building's toilets must get priority, though, for use of a few.

Toilette effect: sanitation programme gets makeover

Such was the effect of these monuments that within 24 hours of their discovery, the Central government gave a makeover to its toilet building programme—the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC). No less than the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs sat down to: change the name of the programme (the same way a toilet became a restroom in the Commission) and increase the official cost of building a toilet. Not to forget, unlike the controlled access to the Commission's toilets, government makes access to toilets universal irrespective of whether a family has below or above poverty line household status.         

TSC is now renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.  It has more than doubled government support for building toilets—from Rs 4,600 to 10,000 per unit. There will be no distinction between BPL and APL households for such support. The Planning Commission approved Rs 36,000 crore for drinking water and sanitation programmes during the 12th Five Year Plan, more than four times that of the last Plan. It is now mandatory to build a toilet to access the government's Indira Awas Yojana, a subsidised housing programme for the poor.

Increasing the support cost is a welcome change. Earlier, the cost could cover only the toilet pan, not the walls around it. This meant thousands of toilets were not used. In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted that 50 per cent of the constructed toilets were not in use. According to WHO and Unicef, the poor are 16 times more likely to opt for open defecation than the rich people. So, those who couldn't afford to construct the walls and the roofs of their toilets can do so now with the additional fund availability. 

To be fair to the Planning Commission, its toilet upgradation programme was long overdue and the latest changes in the sanitation programme may douse the controversy over the matter. But the changes in the sanitation programme for the country will certainly not bring change in real terms.

It misses a critical aspect that makes sanitation sustainable: water. The Commission's 12th Plan document on sanitation says: “Water availability is crucial to the success of the Total Sanitation Campaign in  the country. India being a nation of “washers”, with only some parts in the Northeast being “wipers”, availability of water is also required to keep the toilets clean and usable.”

People who have toilets don't use it for scarcity of water. Though surveys find it not to be a significant reason for not using toilets, communities do insist it is a big consideration. In a survey, nine percent of people said that non-availability of water was a reason for not using toilets. Women entirely manage domestic water demands, often walking kilometres to fetch water. This is a well recorded fact. Having a toilet means more than doubling water use at the household level. This in turn increases the work burden of women substantially. But successful examples of sanitation show that once water is ensured at the household level, toilet use also becomes a habit. But there is no specific policy push for this.

In March 2012, India missed its national goal of making sanitation universal. It would have been a right occasion to inaugurate the Commission's renovated toilets. But without that also, the sanitation monuments made the point.


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