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Toilets in India: The statistics stink

Here’s the stinking truth. More than half of 1.2 billion people in India live without toilets. They squat on roadsides, in agriculture fields or at railway tracks and defecate in the open. This, despite the Indian government spending close to Rs1,250 billion on water and sanitation projects in the last 20 years. This fiscal, the UPA government has mounted the sanitation budget to Rs 15,260 crore against the revised estimate of Rs 13,000 crore. Obviously, all that money is going down the drain, literally.

The sorry state of affairs has been confirmed by the latest baseline survey under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, earlier Total Sanitation Campaign, under progress across the country at the moment. The survey figures, collected so far, mention that 54.7 percent households in the country are without toilets. The number is likely to go up sharply, considering that data is still being collected. So far, only a fraction of the total 252,824 gram panchayats in the country has been covered under the survey.

India's toilet problems. Reuters

India's toilet problems. Reuters

The provisional of Census 2011 data had revealed a similar grim picture. Mentioning that less than 31 per cent of Indian population has access to sanitation facilities. The figures had caused huge embarrassment to the Government of India as the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation had claimed more than 57 percent sanitation coverage.

"The government is mechanically releasing the money and targeting toilet construction without paying any attention to community involvement. As a result most of the toilets, especially in rural areas, are lying non-functional. People use these toilets for storing fodder or cow dung cakes,” says Ran Singh Parmar, who is working with a community-based organisation in Madhya Pradesh.

Nevertheless it is not that the government is not committed. Rather, the government has made big commitments at national and international platforms time and again, to achieve complete sanitation by eliminating manual scavenging and open defecation practices. Commitments have been made at global level through the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and at regional level during four South Asian Conferences on Sanitation, since 2003. Besides, the high level political leaders have been attending the SAARC Summits and have agreed to work collectively to address water and sanitation challenges in the country.

It is pertinent to mention here that the country has also signed the UN resolution on the right to water and sanitation and thereby committed to take steps to realise that everyone has an access to water and sanitation facilities, be it people living in tribal area or people with physical challenges.

Rebutting these hollow commitments, the MDG report confirmed that over 75 per cent of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe households do not have access to safe sanitation. In rural areas, even today poor and low caste families are living on the mercy of the powerful and rich upper castes. The social divide restricts SC/ST to use the community facilities whereas their women face exploitation. The barriers these excluded communities face are much bigger and stronger than technology, design and monitoring or access issue.

Even a UNICEF report mentioned that the national Indian average of sanitation, hygiene and water safety is mere 34 per cent. For the urban population it is 58 percent whereas for the people in the rural area it is just 23 percent. The situation is endorsed by the Joint Monitoring Programme report, which establishes the fact that at least 40 percent of the people from poorest background have barely benefited from sanitation facilities meant for them in the last decade.

On failing to keep its promises made in the past, the government of India extended its deadline to achieve the targets. Now under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan the government has kept 2017 as the year to declare the country free from open defecation and for ensuring hundred percent safe disposal of faecal waste.

Concerned by the situation, about 40 odd civil societies, working on various issues, have come together on a joint platform to demand the government to ‘keep its promises’. A pressure group is emerging through the campaign to press the government to look at the marginalised population of the country which is still not getting any sanitation facilities.

“The government gives a subsidy for the construction of toilets but the same does not reach the real beneficiary, be it a Dalit, tribal or extremely poor population or women, children and physically challenged people. There is a need to build a momentum and remind the government of its promises to provide safe and complete sanitation to all,” says R Murali, the convener of Fresh Water Action Network South Asia, which is a major partner in the regional campaign on sanitation.

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