A stinking scam: Maharashtra toilets go missing!

As much as Rs 600 crore was spent on subsidising the cost of building toilets from 1997 and government records listed 1.7 million as having come up in individual homes.

Mahesh Vijapurkar September 20, 2012 19:03:03 IST
A stinking scam: Maharashtra toilets go missing!

Where are the 3.1 million toilets that were said to have been built across Maharashtra? A report over the weekend in Sakal newspaper, tucked away in a corner in the inside pages, said they were 'missing'.

This is how they went: 'missing'.

The state’s water and sanitation ministry had reported that there were 60,69,419 toilets.

A stinking scam Maharashtra toilets go missing

Toilet scam in Maharashtra? Reuters

The Census 2011, which counts not just heads but what indicators to better lives are available with families—refrigerators, cars, telephones and toilets etc.—found only 29,57,408 toilets.

Look at the numbers: those ‘missing’ are more than those which actually are in place and counted. That is, more than half. The report says a shocked Unicef, which deals with quality of life issues, especially of the poor, found out the gap between the myth and reality and brought it to the notice of Maharashtra government.

When? We don’t know. Must have been recently for only provisional figures are available from the Census as of now. But if there is a stinker of a scandal, it is here: it not as if someone pocketed crores—in hundreds and thousands—as in Commonwealth Games, 2G, Coalgate—but at the grassroots, much more hurting in a vital sphere—community health.

The huge difference between what was reported by the state machinery and what was discovered by Census 2011 is explained by an official as being "largely the gap between respondents reporting the use of toilets as against their actual construction’’. This, however, strengthens the view that Maharashtra is yet to be toilet-trained, which is harder than building the all-important facility. They are there but unused.

No doubt, if there has been over reporting, it had to have a reason: money by way of subsidies given to toilet constructions could have ended up in some pockets, which is par for course; the other is the false claims made to win the Nirmal Gram Puraskar for open-defecation free villages.

The Nirmal Gram Puraskars are part of the Total Sanitation Campaign and awarded since 2003 to “add vigour” to the total sanitation campaign. Number of toilets has a bearing on the choice of who among the gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads receive them.

As the ministry website says, “A ‘Nirmal Gram’ is an ‘Open Defecation Free’ village where all houses, Schools and Anganwadis having sanitary toilets and awareness amongst community on the importance of maintaining personal and community hygiene and clean environment.”

If you look at the number of awards Maharashtra has received year upon year, it is an impressive 9,523 gram panchayats. The closest state to it is Tamil Nadu with 2,385 gram panchayats. Even that 9,523 is merely a third of total number of panchayats - 28,813. Maharashtra’s engagement with improving sanitation has been long, right from the time Gadge Maharaj, who was revered as a ‘sant’ for his zeal and purpose; his real name was Debuji Zhingraji Janorkar (1876 - 1956). He preached cleanliness and swept villages to persuade people to see reason. His standard, like a king’s mace, was a broom tied to his waist.

Then, in 2001, as a precursor to the Nirmal Gram national awards, Maharashtra started a programme of asking villages to compete for the best status on a variety of parameters, adding up to 85, in which hygiene—water storage at home, general cleaniness and tidiness of the environment, drains and toilets—were critical determinants. These awards were named after Gadge Maharaj.

Soon after the devastating 1993 earthquake in Marathwada—known as the Latur Earthquake—when World Bank-assisted rebuilding of a flattened landscape started, building of toilets closest to the homes, preferably within the homes, was given a priority. Then, 1995 onwards, a programme of toilet-building with subsidy from the state government began.

As much as Rs 600 crore was spent on subsidising the cost of building toilets from 1997 and government records listed 1.7 million as having come up in individual homes. However, both the Latur and this programme suffered from a serious deficiency. The toilets were put to uses other than for defecation. These became storerooms to keep farm implements, in some cases, converted into kitchens and in some, into puja rooms. I had written about this issue in The Hindu Business Line on June 22, 2004 as follows:

“Maharashtra (has) spent Rs 450 crore as subsidy in some three years since 1997 to help build 17 lakh toilets in individual homes in the rural areas and shockingly, at least 40 percent of them are not being put to use for a variety of reasons. According to officials, they are being used as storage space or "even a pooja room" because in most cases, "it happened to be the best part of the house".

The households put a cover on the Indian style seat and lo and behold, it is a "room". The fields, after all, continue to be quite inviting. "Senior World Bank officials, including its Vice-President, Mr Praful Patel, were quite surprised when this was conveyed to them at a briefing here recently but were curious to know why."

Apparently, they were told, these toilets do not meet the, people's cultural norms or practices.”

They preferred the inviting openness of a field. If 3.1 of these kinds of toilets go entirely missing, then there is something seriously wrong with administration of the programme, issues of integrity in claiming rewards, and above all, apathy of the people. That this should be the case with a state that styles itself as being progressive is utterly shocking.

Shocks apart, doesn’t the ‘missing toilets’ amount to a stinking scam?

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