By Philippe Cullet
“Lovers built the Taj Mahal for their love. But I couldn’t build a loo.” So says Keshav, the lead character of a new Bollywood movie, after his wife leaves him for failing to build a toilet in their home. The film, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, is a commercial film in support of governmental campaigns to improve sanitation in India.
Access to sanitation has attracted more attention in India over the past few years thanks to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). Launched in 2014, this project seeks to make the country free of “open defecation”—the practice of defecating outside—by 2019. The effort follows the supreme court of India which recognised sanitation as a fundamental right in the 1990s, and the UN general assembly more recently recognised sanitation as a distinct human right.
The project will be an immense challenge for India, which was responsible for 60% of the world’s open defecation five years ago. This is particularly a problem in the country’s large rural areas. India has a huge population and a major lack of accessible toilets—both in private households and in public spaces. Roughly half of the rural population are estimated to lack proper access to sanitation. In rural areas, people often go to remote fields to relieve themselves—separate for men and women.
To reach the 2019 goal, the country will need both behaviour change and new infrastructure to succeed. As of now, India appears to be headed towards ensuring that every house has an individual toilet in the next couple of years. But this will only be an important first step in a series needed to ensure the country has interventions covering all dimensions of sanitation.
One of the most important challenges will be to build community and public toilets. In a number of places, community toilets are necessary because building individual toilets at home may not be feasible, for instance, because of lack of space. Also, they are necessary for people without a house, such as homeless people and migrant workers.
The need for community toilets is already recognised as part of current sanitation interventions but is often not implemented. And local authorities often lack the funds to pay someone to undertake the cleaning of the facilities once built.
Attitudes to gender and caste
India has to be careful so that the project does not interfere with its efforts to boost gender equality. Historically, campaigns pushing for more toilets to be built often cite the modesty of women as the main reason—toilets, after all, prevent women from exposing themselves in public.
This is also problematic as it places the burden of adjustment on women. Indeed, in many households that have built toilets, men do not even necessarily use them. This links with the broader issue of people resisting the introduction of toilets per se.
The regressive nature of such campaigns is now officially recognised with new governmental guidelines urging a rethink of behaviour-change tactics. Yet, much more needs to be done. As long as it is men who plan for toilets, the needs of women are either subsidiary or not taken into account at all.
Clearly, women have specific sanitation needs, for instance, related to menstrual hygiene. This needs to be fully integrated into any goals to boost sanitation—a challenge in a country where periods are associated with shame. Schemes for the provision of sanitary products constitute a definite step forward, but these are limited and environment-friendly disposal facilities and awareness campaigns are even more limited.
Attitudes to caste matter, too. Sanitation work is a very sensitive issue in India because it is mainly carried out by the lowest caste, the Dalits—once called “untouchables.” People from this caste even carry out manual scavenging, the inhuman practice of manually collecting human excrement from dry latrines to clean them—despite the fact that the practice is prohibited by law.
With millions of new toilets, more sanitation workers will be needed to carry out faecal sludge management. This will be difficult, as such jobs are stigmatised. Indeed, the conditions for such workers are often appalling—the media regularly reports on the deaths of sanitation workers who have entered sewers without any protective gear.
Clearly, one of the challenges India is facing is addressing this social stigma to make sanitation work an acceptable and safe career that is not reserved for a specific group in society. Mechanisation of the process could go some way to help ensure that workers do not need to enter the sewers.
There are also risks to the environment. At present, the toilets that are built are mostly single pit latrines that will need to be emptied at least once every few years. Where the pits are lined at the bottom, the septage will need to be pumped out more regularly, and there need to be measures in place to ensure that it is not simply disposed of in neighbouring fields or rivers.
Where the pits are not lined, one of the concerns is the impact on groundwater quality. In the state of Kerala, where most houses have an unlined pit on one side of the house and a well used for drinking water on the other side, this is a particular problem. In a context where groundwater is the source of drinking water for around 80% of the population in India, the building of so many new toilets needs to be carefully planned.
Overall, the major progress that has been witnessed in access to sanitation over the past few years is a first step forward. It needs, however, to be linked to a series of other actions and an awareness of the social and cultural dimensions of sanitation. Without this, the country is unlikely to achieve full success.
Published on Quartz India on October 10, 2017.
Sanitation is basic human right, which must be provided to every human being. Poor hygiene and sanitation not adversely impacts our health but also lead to multiple socio-economic and environmental problems, especially contamination of water resources.
This was stated by Federal Minister for Climate Change Zahid Hamid while addressing the inaugural session of the Third Pakistan Conference on Sanitation here on Wednesday.
The minister said according to the Global Joint Monitoring Programme Report 2015 by UN Children's Fund and World Health Organisation, 64% of population of Pakistan had access to improve sanitation.
"Pakistan ranked second in South Asia with very high under five-mortality rate of 72 per 1,000 children. There are 25 million cases annually suffering from diarrhea. More than 300 children die everyday due to poor sanitation and hygiene services."
The minister also said in September 2015, Pakistan along 190 countries committed itself to realization of targets set out in the sustainable goals.
"On 19th February 2016, the National Assembly unanimously passed the resolution adopting 2030 agenda as the national development agenda. This why the sustainable goals are now Pakistan developments goals," he said.
The minister said the ministry had developed the National Sanitation Policy in 2006 and National Drinking policy in 2009 after the floods of 2010 these policies provided necessarily guidance to government agencies and development partners in preparation of plans in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH Sector).
He said both policies were being reviewed in the light of initiatives of planning ministry to align all policies with SDGs.
"At the national level, SDGs monitoring and coordination unit has been established to plan supervise and monitor implementation. Special focus has been placed on goal 6, which is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The Ministry of Climate Change is providing technical support to provincial governments, departments for localising the provisional targets."
The minister said the ongoing population census in Pakistan had two specific and detailed questions on water and sanitation.
"In addition to estimated baseline data relating to SDG 6, we will have soon accurate and up to census date on water and sanitation facilities for each Pakistani," he said.
He also said that we plan to establish a WASH cell at Ministry of Climate Change for coordination of all key stakeholders. Pakistan is the host of next South East Conference on Sanitation in 2018.
"The unit will also play a key role in organising this important regional conference in Pakistan. The Ministry of Climate Change has also developed the Pakistan approach to total sanitation, which seeks to establish and sustain and open defection free environment both in rural and urban areas through behaviour change and social mobilisation."
Federal education minister Balighur Rehman, who also attended the event, said improved sanitation and water cannot be achieved without educating masses.
He compared the statistics of education sector of 2012-13 with 2015-16. He said 64 % of government schools had toilets and now it has 8% increased. He also informed that water and sanitation can be improved through awareness and habit development training and we have started inter provincial conference after 18th amendment.
Former minister Javed Jabbar said Pakistanis disposed sewage into lakes, rivers and sea adversely impacting environment and people. "There should be respectful way of using water in agriculture, drinking and household consumption. It is also issue of policy priorities by the government. The structure of control at grass root level is weak in terms of local government."
Ms. Angela Kearney of the UNICEF said the government of Pakistan's efforts were helping achieve water and sanitation targets in the country.
Published on The News' website on April 7, 2017.