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India’s Sanitation Crisis

It’s an oft-repeated truism that India has more cellphones than toilets. The cellphone statistic can be traced to the radical changes in telephony in the 1990s. Understanding why Indians don’t have access to toilets is more complex.

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Social mores in India dictate that a toilet (“impure”) should not be built inside the house but outside the (“pure”) living and cooking areas. It is common to see standalone toilets outside rural houses. Caste, class and tradition combine to keep access to sanitation a distant dream for the landless rural poor, migrant urban families and slum dwellers who don’t own houses. Chawls in Mumbai, for example, are built with common toilets. Compounding this is a cultural reluctance to speak about matters of sanitation in public – a taboo topic. The worst affected by this silence are underprivileged women who work in the disorganized sector with no access to amenities. Toilet Benefits Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation to put toilets before temples has spurred civil society to action. This is the first time that there is such a mainstream discussion of the implications of sanitation facilities, though the area has always been one of importance. The United Nations Inter-Agency Mechanism, UN Water says that access to water and usable sanitation services is “one of the most efficient ways of improving human health.[1]” What’s more, rural areas with 100% toilet coverage report a decline in sexual assault cases against women. What’s the connection between the two? Women answering nature’s call at night are often at the mercy of miscreants, who target them at that hour. In Lucknow, police official Ashish Gupta stated that “more than 60% of the rapes in the state occur when the victims step out to relieve themselves because they have no toilets in their homes[2]”. This story repeats itself in urban areas as well. The health and social benefits earned by investing in toilets has now caught the attention of the mainstream, who are keen to do their part. Who’s going to solve India’s toilet problem? The PM’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and insistence on building toilets has resulted in increased funding in the space. The Government has allocated approximately Rs20,000 crores to the scheme[3]. In 2015, the Government announced that CSR activities under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan would receive 100% tax exemption[4]. Top-down funding It’s incredible that the PM’s words have galvanised a flow, if not a deluge, of funds towards this sector! The Central Government has set aside funds for the construction of toilets in schools, anaganwadis and sanitation complexes. Private funders have taken a more innovative approach to the projects they are considering. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID have partnered with the Government of India to improve practices and build capacity in sanitation solutions. The Foundation has funded research in designing toilets to serve the needs of the poor. This includes toilets without access to water, sewers or electricity and effective treatment and disposal of human waste. Private companies like Eram Scientific Solutions (Eram) have thrown their hat into the ring too. A private limited company that identifies itself as a social enterprise; Eram was one of the NGOs shortlisted for the Gates-USAID-GoI toilet challenge. Eram has received significant attention for their eToilet – a toilet with an automatic flushing system which is operated electronically, reducing the need for maintenance. While the eToilet has been purchased by some state governments the jury is still out on the acceptability of these toilets. NGOs/Social Enterprises: NGOs hold a key position in the value chain when it comes to sanitation: They link beneficiaries to government schemes that subsidise toilet construction by household They create awareness about use and maintenance They supervise construction and mobilise communities Others like Sulabh International are now synonymous with public toilets. The original toilet builders, Sulabh’s vision was to improve the condition of manual scavengers who were forced to clean human waste with their hands. Their innovation is an ‘environmentally friendly, two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet[5]’ that does not need to be cleaned by hand. This has been installed in 1.2 million houses in India. Most would be familiar with Sulabh Shauchalayas or pay-per-use public toilets, 8,000 of which have been set up across the country. Sulabh International Social Service Organisation is now in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Several well-meaning initiatives have failed because they did not acknowledge the community’s doubts about using public toilets. Mumbai-based Triratna Prerana Mandal (TPM) believes in a bottom-up approach to sanitation solutions. Started by a group of young locals, they are now a Community Based Organisation that is part of a World-Bank funded slum sanitation improvement programme[6]. TPM is responsible for the maintenance of a public toilet complex in Santacruz, Mumbai. They issue families in the area with low-cost passes to use the facilities, and take care of cleanliness and maintenance of the toilet. What’s more, they have set up solar panels to generate renewable energy and reduce their costs. Lastly, they have also turned the space above the toilet into a community centre, providing facilities like a kitchen and computer centre for those in the area. Goonj.. provides much-needed feminine hygiene solutions for women and girls. Menstruating women and girls are the worst affected by a lack of water and sanitation facilities. Poor menstrual hygiene has deadly consequences for women. Taboos inhibit discussion of the topic. The lack of access to water and sanitary napkins leads women to use alternatives like ashes, husk sand and re-use unwashed rags. These unhygienic alternatives result in Reproductive Tract Infections (RTI) and increase the risk of cervical cancer. Access to water facilities is life saving for these women. Organisations like Aakar Innovations and innovators like Arunachalam Muruganantham work to reduce this deficit. Conclusion We will hopefully live in a country with better access to toilets and sanitation facilities for all. The Observer Research Foundation’s recent research study into the subject of sanitation concludes with a demand to make Sanitation and Clean Water fundamental rights of every Indian citizen[7]. Once we see sanitation as an inalienable fundamental right, change is sure to follow. [1] http://www.unwater.org/topics/water-sanitation-and-hygiene/en/ [2] http://www.livemint.com/Politics/hbWuOVF83Q2hRmBd07digN/Lack-of-toilets-more-than-just-a-sanitation-problem.html [3] http://www.accountabilityindia.org/, Infographic on toilet use, accessed on 12th February [4] ‘Budget 2015: 100% tax exemption for contributions to Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga’, Firstpost Bureau, Firstpost, 28th February 2015 [5]http://www.sulabhinternational.org/content/meet-sulabh [6] Source: Activity Report FY14, Triratna Prerana Mandal [7] Pg 62, Tiwari, Payal, Recommendations, Toilet Torture in Mumbai’s Slums, Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

 

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