Ever since he has taken over the rural development portfolio, union minister Jairam Ramesh has been consistent in his obsession with sanitation and open defecation. Although he has dime a dozen other things to do in his ministry, nothing has been more visibly associated with a squeaky clean Ramesh.
Everywhere he went in last several months, the minister spoke about sanitation as a right, committed a 40 percent rise in the union budget for sanitation, announced awards, urged people not to shit in public and raised borrowed slogans such as “no toilets, no bride”.
To add glamour to a seemingly “dirty” issue, he also succeeded in bringing “dirty picture” actress Vidya Balan as the brand ambassador for his pet cause.
On Monday, he raised the toilet pitch again. This time, he ridiculed people who defecate in the open saying that it is an Indian mindset and people considered open defecation as a birthright. He also said that the mindset is the same whether it is in the BIMARU states or elsewhere. “It’s an Indian characteristic”.
He went a step ahead and urged women to consider toilet as their birthright. “For her privacy, for her dignity.” “Every school, every anganwadi and every home must have a toilet,” he added.
If only catch-phrases, shaming the faceless poor and encouragement could transform the Indian defecation landscape.
A few defecation trivia first: India is the open defecation capital of the world – different estimates show that between 500 to 600 million people, or about 60 percent of the country’s population, clear their bowels in the open. This number is roughly 58 percent of the people who shit in the open all over the world.
Even a less flashy Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are better off than India.
Other than the indignity that Jairam Ramesh spoke about, shitting in the open is a terrible public health hazard. Two facts can illustrate this easily – India loses at least 1000 children a day to diarrhoeal deaths, obviously because of poor sanitation; and the holy ganges is unsafe for bathing because it is filled to the brim with faecal coliform bacteria (120 times higher than the permitted levels).
The dirty statistics can go on and on to nauseating levels and hence let’s stop here for a while and see if Jairam Ramesh will ever win his campaign.
Highly improbable, because his quest for an end to the country’s sanitation woes is based on national pride and shame of the poor, technology, grants, and boutique projects in states such as Kerala and Sikkim which are socio-economically unique.
When he makes fun of people who defecate in the open saying that it is a national characteristic, he is either naive or is pretending to be naive. Does he mean people derive a lot pleasure by sitting on railway tracks, river banks and open fields, sometimes in groups, to defecate?
Perhaps not and I am sure he knows it as well.
He knows that it is because they don’t have toilets, adequate water to wash themselves and sewage lines to take their excreta away. Statistics bear this fact out: access to “improved water sources” (by the way, this curious nomenclature doesn’t necessarily mean completely safe drinking water) has improved substantially in India, but not sanitation. On record, about 88 percent of Indians have access to improved water sources, but only 31 percent have improved access to sanitation. In rural areas, it is worse.
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