“Teacher, May I Go To The Toilet?” What toilet?

Posted on April 16, 2015 in Education

By Mehernaz Patel:

Let’s wind the clock back two years ago.

2013: Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi makes a bold statement. Says, we should build toilets first, temples later. He even goes so far as to claim that despite him being thought of as a Hindutva leader, this is an issue he believes is more pressing for our nation.

The press pondered, the elite commented and then it passed.

Fast forward one year.

2014: Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a headliner at the Global Citizen Festival and brings the issue of open sanitation to an international audience. This is also the year Mr. Modi launches the much debated Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, whose two major components deal with provision of clean and cost-effective latrines.

Again, pondering, commenting and then the issue passed.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

Now this is no way to negate the work that is being put into such endeavours. Neither is it a participation in the ever popular media soap “Blame it on Modi.” It is simply an illustration of how easily even the most basic rights of citizens such as sanitation flit in and out of public consciousness as a whole.

Sanitation in India is always perceived to be an important issue. John Oliver reared his head midst the 2014 national election with a satirical bit on the “pro-toiletness” of Narendra Modi’s platform. Even if his jibe were considered in poor taste by those who might jump up at a chance to defend some other completely unrelated comedy act, there is no denying its importance in both political and social rhetoric.

Yet, an aspect of the national sanitation drives that tends to go under the radar for the most part, is the presence of toilets in school buildings in India.

The Supreme Court in 2014 re-asserted itself by saying that separate toilets and drinking water facilities were indispensable when it came to schools. This was an echo of its 2012 ruling that schools across the country should provide satisfactory toilet facilities to both its teachers and students so as to provide them with an education that would prepare them for vocational pursuits. A noble cause if any.

The idea of a Right to Education is far from a new one after all, having been part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which was adopted in 1966. In India, it is part of our Constitution as article 21-A, wherein the government is legally obligated to provide that ideal “free and compulsory education” to all children between ages 6 to 14.

Cut to today though, and like most rulings made by the judiciary, their implementation leaves a bit to be desired.

Looking at the DISE reports from 2013-14, only four Union Territories have no schools that lack in sanitation facilities, every single other state or Union Territory has a few loos amiss in their educational facilities. The states of Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Andhra Pradesh are faring the worst. Bihar has 17,892 schools without toilets for girls and 19,422 without toilets for boys. Which means a little more than half the schools in the state are without toilets of some kind.

This seems like an unrelated, if unfortunate bit of trivia until we see that Bihar also has one of the lower retention rates for students in the country. Meghalaya and Mizoram are lagging as well with lower retention rates and 3781 schools lacking toilet facilities for girls out of 7757 schools. This isn’t even an issue primarily based around social niceties; lack of proper sanitation facilities are well known sources of a multitude of diseases like diarrhoea.

In developed countries the disease would be seen as a small nuisance and yet in India it kills around 200,000 children annually. These stats don’t even account for toilets that are dysfunctional. No, these account for absence. This may not be a problem some face, whereas for others it is a daily reality. A teacher punishing you by not permitting your stroll to the loo for the fourth time is a very different thing as compared to there not being a loo in the first place.

This may even be the reason for dropout rates in India, with Mr. Modi himself admitting that in an absence of toilets, girls who enrol in schools don’t stay there for too long. Yet, we mustn’t blame this as the sole factor, considering education rates depend upon a range of sociological and economic factors. Karnataka may be a good example with lower retention rates despite having a mere 12 schools without toilet facilities for girls.

Photo Cedit
Photo Cedit

In any country, admission into the educational system is as important as the retention of students and there is an observable correlation between dropout rates and lags in sanitation. So there is the natural question as to why the hell isn’t it getting fixed? Sexual tolerance and religious debates are one thing, if there is any one issue that should bring a nation together, toilets are that issue. We all seem to need them.

This kind of a break in the “march toward progress” is just another example of how the Covenant may make complete sense on paper and yet in terms of its execution in small isolated regions may not be possible.

Of the four A’s – Accessibility, Availability, Acceptability and Adaptability, the fourth is logistically the most important. In a country with a population that increasingly vies for a standard of living primarily dictated by western norms, the education format does little to gear children vocationally despite an overly crowded job market. Education focusing on academic achievement might still be justifiable in urban areas, it should be far more focussed in their rural counterparts so as to provide a good standard of living for all citizens, prevent overcrowding in urban regions and finally demolish the existing urban-rural binary.

Even in the case at hand – the idea of municipal disposal of waste may be a good one in Indian cities, however, in areas with a lack of infrastructure or even water, environmental friendly toilets could be constructed that don’t even need water for waste disposal and also produce compost as a by-product.

Most of these are constructed above ground and require very little maintenance post initial cost. Not only would this reduce excessive reliance on water, it can help in creating small self-sustaining agricultural ventures in schools, thus marking their independence.

An overreliance on “advanced” urban technology might be the reason for the failure of sanitation attempts in these schools considering they have to negotiate around far more variables than their urban counterparts.

In 2014, The Andhra Pradesh Government said before a Supreme Court that although provisions were being made, they would need more time because of a lack of water facilities and pitfalls in construction. Even though the bench didn’t find this explanation satisfactory, perhaps, for once, the states were on to something, albeit probably unintentionally.

Thus, prior to a pursuit of a universal provision of education, there has to be a ground level inspection and a far greater chunk of money allotted to the staff, both teaching and non-teaching if such government obligations are to be fruitful. That is something that private endeavours like TFI have managed to understand. A right to education unless backed by a sound understanding of the logistical and curriculum based adjustments required in almost every unit of its functioning will be at best, superficial.

Oxfam’s #HaqBantaHai campaign aims to give a clear message to the Union Government and the Education Ministry to take action on RTE and provide millions of children their fundamental right of education.

Your support is vital. Join us in our efforts to foster an atmosphere where every child can have their ‘Haq’ (right) of education. Do sign the petition here or give a missed call to 09266605000 to share your support.

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