Will Jairam succeed in potty training half a billion Indians?

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.

Ramesh inaugurating a "Bio-toilet" made by DRDO. PTI

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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Additionally, according to some estimates only 13 percent of India’s sewage is treated. The rest is dumped on our rivers, soil, and ocean, most of which comes back to us.

Therefore, toilet is not the solution to our sanitation shame but a lot of things that make the toilet work.

Will toilets with good water supply, good sewage line and good potty training of millions of our people help?

No, it will still not work because toilet is not just a symbol of our non-existent or crumbling infrastructure and habits, but also a host of underlying factors.

As in the case of public health challenges and epidemics, poor sanitation also has its socio-economic, cultural and political reasons which are never addressed by the State because it is tricky and can be politically counter-productive. It’s a symbol of the complex and gross inequality of our society: a symbol of poverty, landlessness, class and caste politics, illiteracy, the failure of the State in addressing them and finally, a poor sense of hygiene.

For the millions of urban homeless and the rural landless, where is the toilet? Where will one build it? Jairam Ramesh can threaten to withhold grants to state governments, but without the social groundwork, how does it work?.

For instance, for the countless dalits, say in Tamil Nadu or Bihar, who are not allowed to draw water from public wells or wear chappals, what is a toilet? For the 30-50 percent of our big city populations that live in squalid slums, where do you lay the infrastructure?

As in the case of poverty, sanitation also doesn’t have a silver bullet. To address poverty, politicians prefer an NREGS because it works in the short term, particularly when elections are round the corner, but would never seriously think of land reforms, caste-violence, investment in health, agriculture, education, and inclusive growth other than in fancy policy statements.

Poverty is a multi-sectoral issue and poor sanitation is one of the indicators of this multi-sectorality. Various ministries should come together and address the entire array of issues in a comprehensive manner. It’s never an issue of money and technology, but political sincerity and will.

Instead of urging illiterate and emaciated rural men, women, and children and the urban poor to have some shame, Jairam Ramesh should speak to his colleagues in ministries from finance to defence. Addressing sanitation in isolation is a futile and wasteful expenditure of the tax payers’ money.

Instead, he and the UPA ministry should address poverty and the structural issues. When people get better lives, they will ask for their toilets and will maintain them well.

Is there scope for optimism? Probably Not.

Because, the fate of the country’s poor is decided by the Planning Commission. It has set a fancy 100 percent target against open defecation in the 12th Plan with the same policy instinct that has said that a person is not poor if he/she earns Rs 29 a day.

And it also constructs a smart toilet for a few of its mandarins at Rs 35 lakhs.

Toilet, in the end, remains the symbol of India’s hypocrisy and insincerity against its poor people.

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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2012 17:05:09 IST