Swachh Bharat: Now or Never

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By Dr. Indira Khurana

New Delhi, Feb.16 (ANI): At the political level, sanitation is hot. It’s time now to shift focus to villages where the action around defecation should really be. It’s here that there are two choices: Open defecation or an environment that is open defecation free. The dream is to achieve the clean India target by 2019, to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

Every year, health payments push 60 million Indians into poverty. More than 80 per cent of diseases are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions. Can we kick the habit of ‘going out?’

Swachh Bharat logos can be found all over the countryside. Can this renewed effort work? Can the rhetoric transform to results?

According to the government’s own documents, between now and October 2019, toilets have to be constructed for a whopping 9.1 crore households. That amounts to an annual target of 228 lakh or a daily target of around 62,000 plus toilets. In 2014-15, according to government estimates a mere 58.55 lakh household toilets were constructed.

Is this scale of construction really possible? Will it lead to a construction-driven activity alone? Money spent but poor usage – a sense of deja vu?

There is some merit in understanding some of the previous struggles and learning from them. To err once is fine, but to repeatedly err is criminal and plain stupidity.

Some of the factors that need to be considered are as follows.

a) Not only numbers, but usage: Though crores of toilets need to be constructed, coverage is not the end of the story. Sanitation is about usage. Research reveals that rarely have the two matched. Delving deeper to understand poor usage has revealed the complexity of issues involved. Some of the challenges that emerged include the following:

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(i) Convincing people to embrace toilets: No single approach will bring about conviction for changeA mother in some remote village may construct a toilet to make natural processes easier for her daughter. Elsewhere, health may be the driving factor. This calls for the use of a ‘different strokes for different folks’ approach, so that inhibitions are understood, appreciated and addressed.

Spotting and nurturing leadership certainly helps. Sarpanch Duryodhan Sahu gave ‘No shave November or Movember’ an all new meaning. On November 1, 2014 he publicly took an oath that he would not shave until his nine-revenue panchayat became open defecation free. On Jan 31, 2015 Kumurisingha panchayat in Angul district of Odisha turned open defection free.

Saraswati Pradhan from nearby Chediapada panchayat is another leader who took on her own brothers-in-law and forced them to fall in line after threatening to shine a fully charged torch on them while they defecated unless they reformed themselves. She is currently the proud Sanitation Ambassador for the state.

The rural landscape of India will definitely be dotted with such leaders. Unearthing them and spreading the word about their feats could give rise to scores of such people who could do likewise and promote sanitation. The ‘magic’ lies in providing all-out timely and appropriate support.

(ii) Quality of construction: Ad nauseam, surveys reveal the poor construction quality of toilets. Some have beautiful exteriors but are empty inside. In others, the slope of the pan is wrong, or there is no space to squat. Norms need to be followed and a strong community would be best placed to do this.

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(iii) Availability of water: This is a major reason behind lack of use. If water has to be brought from far off distances, it is an additional burden on the women and girls. In absence of water, one usage can render it unusable. Water must be readily available nearby so that the pan can be cleaned and hands washed.

(iv) Lack of total solutions: Safe sanitation is more than defecating in a safe environment. It is about its operation and maintenance and safe disposal of fecal sludge. Users are often perplexed as to how to dispose of the waste – both liquid and solid. In absence of understanding and support for operation and maintenance, toilets become unusable. Either the toilets become defunct or the wastewater spills over with sometimes deadly implications.

Solutions for the safe disposal of the fecal sludge when the pits become full need to be available. Private service providers with mechanised systems can provide cleaning services. The waste collected needs to be safely disposed for which the dedicated land needs to be provided. Alternately the waste can be disposed in existing sewage treatment plants in nearby urban areas. But the costs need to be worked out.

(v) Availability of skilled masons and hardware: One of the major deterrents to toilet construction is the absence of supply chains to provide necessary hardware and construction support. Information on suitable hardware choices and its availability and masons who can construct the toilets are not easily available at convenient distances.

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This gap can be rectified so that units are set up to provide hardware at convenient distance and generate livelihoods in the process. Is someone in Skill India listening?

(vi) Honesty in reporting: One of the biggest shockers that emerged from the Census 2011 data was the issue of ‘missing toilets’. The different between the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation’s data (as reported by states) and the Census data on toilet coverage was around 23 per cent, which translates into 3.5 crore missing toilets. As state governments scrambled to search for answers, the writing was clear on the wall. The reported coverage simply did not exist, in spite of expenditure made.

Efforts are ongoing to develop fool proof reporting mechanisms using GPS technology. But till such time commitment and honesty enters into reporting, loopholes and jugaad will be found.

The deplorable state of sanitation has turned large swathes of the rural landscape into a dump, a slang used for going to defecate. The question is: Are we ready to make the leap? Or will we continue to remain ‘in the dumps?’

The views expressed in the above article are that of Dr. Indira Khurana, Policy Lead – Resource Scarcity, Food Security and Climate Change, IPE Global. She has also served as a Director Policy and Partnerships in WaterAid India (WAI). (ANI)

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