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Indian PM Risks Political Backlash If Plan To Build 100 Million Toilets Fails

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By Robin Jeffrey:

The Western world may take them for granted, but in India, home to more than 1.2 billion people, about half the population has no access to or doesn’t use toilets. That’s 600 million individuals, or 120 million households: a formidable challenge for sanitation.

But it’s a challenge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced wholeheartedly. His Swachh Bharat! (or Clean India!) campaign aims to build 100 million household toilets and 500,000 community toilets by 2019.

It’s 18 months since the new prime minister inaugurated the program. He chose Mahatma Gandhi’s 145th birthday, October 2, 2014. Gandhi was a major advocate of sanitation.

A clean India, Modi declared, would be achieved by the 150th anniversary in 2019. That is also the year of the next scheduled general election.

Since October 2014, there have been hundreds of photo opportunities and activities aimed at cleaning up domestic waste and at toilet building. Tens of millions of rupees have been committed – US$20 million went into advertising alone in the first six months.

The interest of the prime minister and the investment of substantial funds have given public sanitation and public health a profile that they have never had before in India.

So, will Modi achieve his dream of bringing sanitation to the masses?

The Sanitation Challenge

In the eyes of various people, from Gandhi in the 1920s to foreign tourists in 2016, India has offered extraordinary examples of unhygienic practices.

“During my wanderings,” Gandhi wrote in Young India in 1925, “nothing has been so painful to me as to observe our insanitation throughout the length and breadth of the land.”

Today, as the middle class expands and non-resident Indians with experience and expectations acquired abroad come and go, pressure to achieve sanitation targets is growing.

Depending on who is counting, India collects between 55 million and 70 million tonnes of waste a year. The United States is estimated to produce about 250 million tonnes a year, three-and-a-half times more for a population a quarter of the size. As Indian affluence grows, the potential for more garbage is a menace that the Clean India campaign is trying to head off.

Further impetus comes from widespread acknowledgement that random defecation, whether in town or countryside, injures public health and leads to physical and mental stunting in children. India’s record in these matters falls behind sub-Saharan Africa and neighbouring Bangladesh.

Two factors make India’s struggle with public sanitation different from the experience of urbanisation in Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and from the problems of other ex-colonial countries today.

The first difference is the sheer volume of waste and the scarcity of space to deal with it. India’s population density is about 370 people per square km. China’s is about 150.

However you treat waste, you need space – for composting, biogas manufacture, sanitary landfill, sorting and recycling, incinerating. Nowhere else in the world have so many people generated waste on this scale and had so little space to deal with it.

The second problem lies in caste and the ideas and practices that go with it. Fifteen per cent of Indians are Dalits (“scheduled castes” in official language and once referred to as “untouchables”). Sections of Dalits have had “waste” as their expected vocation for generations.

As Indian scholar Sonal Sharma wrote this year, “Various micro-level studies show that non-Dalit workers do not like to clean toilets and that the workers who clean toilets are always from lowest castes.”

A great many higher-caste people are repelled by the idea of connection with any kind of “waste”.

Possibilities And Pitfalls

In Swachh Bharat’s favour is the work of activists and some dedicated sanitary engineers over the past 20 years. The Solid Waste Management Rules laid down by the Supreme Court of India in 2000 are an excellent guide, and local governments not following them are in contempt of the nation’s highest court.

The rules go into fine detail about how to set up collection systems and disposal centres. They prohibit “manual handling of waste” and restrict “land filling…to non-biodegradable, inert waste”.

As such ambitious standards suggest, no local government has been able to get within a tiger’s roar of meeting the requirements of the rules. They are a worthy, distant target.

At scattered locations around the country, local governments, non-government organisations and some businesses have shown remarkable achievements in cleaning up neighbourhoods, reusing and recycling materials and maintaining clean public toilets. There’s unlikely to be a shortage of public funding, as the prime minister’s reputation is on the line.

Household income is not a crucial obstacle. Of India’s 120 million non-toilet households, a significant percentage could have afforded a toilet long ago if they had wanted one. There’s a cultural struggle to be won about the importance for health – especially childhood health – of taming human excrement.

There’s also an authority problem. Local governments, responsible for public sanitation, are underpowered legally, financially and administratively. For officials, service in local government carries little prestige and modest salaries. Local governments have trouble extracting rates and dues from residents, and the legal difficulties in locating sites for waste management are great.

It would be unwise, however, to write off Swachh Bharat. India has achieved some surprising results in the past 15 years. Tobacco smoke used to be everywhere; today some states are largely smoke-free. Some too have done a fair job in trying to eliminate plastic bags. The Delhi underground network, the Metro, was completed on time and on budget and serves the city well.

Swachh Bharat has the benefit of prime ministerial backing in a way that no Indian clean-up campaign has had before.

That’s risky politics, because if “insanitation throughout the length and breadth of the land” is still a problem at election time in 2019, it will provide a propaganda picnic for opposition parties seeking to oust an incumbent government. The photo opportunities will be very different from those recent ones of smiling politicians, awkwardly held brooms and sparkling corridors.The Conversation

Robin Jeffrey, Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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