A country which has been successfully launching satellite missions and getting applauded the world over. A country that is aiming to have bullet trains built with unimaginable facilities. But on the other extreme, she is struggling to build toilets and finding it even more difficult to convince people, especially from the rural front to build one. Using toilets is a basic human right. Building and ‘using’ them is the first step towards making the country ‘open defecation free (ODF)’. But can India be actually ODF certified with so many disparities with such a huge lack of awareness and lack of access to information?
In June 2017, I got the opportunity to attend the third WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) summer school program organized by the Coca Cola Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI University, New Delhi. It was a three-day program with a dynamic group (comprising school students, postgraduate and PhD candidates to officials from the Irrigation department and urban planners from Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh, Kerala and nearby Delhi-NCR).
The second day of the program was an exhilarating experience as it involved a site visit to one of the unique organizations in the country—the Sulabh International Social Service Organization located at Palam, Delhi. It was founded by Padma Bhushan awardee Dr Bindeshwar Pathak who has worked tirelessly in educating masses about sanitation. He has made a Gandhian vision, and his constructive programs on the restoration of human rights and dignity of scavengers are a mission of his life.
The US National Sanitation Foundation defines sanitation as “the quality of living expressed in clean homes, clean farms, clean neighborhoods and clean community. Being a way of life, it must come from people, nourished as it is by knowledge and it grows as obligation and ideal in human relations.” The deprivation in the living standards includes non-availability of two essential services directly related to sanitation, safe drinking water and health. The organization has been deeply involved in educating the children of sanitation workers by imparting them with the right skills, thus paving the way for wider social inclusion. Their upliftment has provided them with a great sense of security for the future.
The ‘Sulabh Public School’ has done this excellent job of empowering these children through various activities. The school imparts computer literacy classes along with Hindi and English stenography, cutting and tailoring, beauty care, dress designing, and embroidery, to name a few. The best part is the active participation of the Sanitation club of the school, which is involved in educating girls about menstrual hygiene as well as manufacturing their own sanitary napkins. The school has been successful in installing a sanitary napkin vending machine as well as an incinerator to dispose of the used pads. It serves as a great source of inspiration as such facilities are available only in select few schools across the country.
The best part of the entire day was the visit to the ‘Toilet museum’ located on the premises of the Sulabh organization. It’s very intriguing and holds the title of being the ‘third weirdest museum’ in the world. The museum artifacts are displayed chronologically to show the evolution of toilets starting from the Indus Valley civilization to the present-day space bio-toilets. History says that great wars have been lost due to unhygienic toilet practices, which included open defecation on the sand, resulting in the spread of harmful diseases. There is a delightful tale of a British monarch’s portable toilet when he was out hunting, lined with velvet as a safeguard against the early chill and wind.
The curator of the museum was very enthusiastic in explaining every detail about the various models of toilets being displayed. He rightly mentioned that the idea of this museum was to act as a vehicle of social change through sensitization and awareness among the common man. Outside of the main museum, there was a display of present-day cost-effective toilets. It even talks about the necessity of having child-friendly toilets at home, a thing not many of us were aware of until we saw the models. The organization specifically educates the masses about the advantages of having a Sulabh flush
compost toilet, essentially a twin pit system. Its implementation is necessary as it prevents water pollution—in turn reducing the chances of disease outbreak. The least-cost toilet that could be constructed in villages roughly amounts to ₹2000 with five users and two-year capacity pits.
The entire program was very enlightening and provided the right platform to start with a sanitation movement. Kunwar Bai, a 105-year-old woman from Chhattisgarh, was made the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan mascot in 2016. She sold off her 8–10 goats to build two toilets at her home and inspired others in her village to do the same. She died at the age of 106. All this boils down to one question: If people like Kunwar Bai can build toilets, despite so many tribulations, then why can’t others? It needs immediate attention as lack of toilets forces women to go out in the jungles early morning to defecate as it becomes a matter of dignity. It is also the reason for the high rate of girl drop-outs from schools.
Let us not forget the recent tragedy where two Dalit boys were killed for defecating in the open. Isn’t access to toilets caste-based and biased? Isn’t accessing toilets still a distant dream for hundreds of thousands of people in our country? Interestingly, it is not just an Indian scenario but a global scenario. Even in the developed world, where there are disturbing trends of ghettoisation, it has been observed that there are extremely poor sanitation conditions with lack of proper WASH facilities.
Ending open defecation has been identified as a priority for reducing global inequalities in WASH. It is explicitly referenced in SDG target 6.2 and closely associated with wider efforts to end extreme poverty by 2030. According to a UNICEF report on the ‘Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (2000-2017)’, child faeces are highly infective. SDG target 6.2 includes an explicit reference to achieving ‘equitable hygiene for all’.
Hygiene comprises a range of behaviours that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases, including handwashing, menstrual hygiene management and food hygiene. The indicator selected for global monitoring of SDG 6.2 is the proportion of the population with a handwashing facility with soap and water, available at home. Poor sanitation and contaminated water are also linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A, and typhoid.
When we are dreaming of ‘leaving no one behind’, it is really important for us to make the world feel uncomfortable with disturbing images and data, so that we work collectively to close this rising gap of inequality and inequity that comes about with the basic human necessity and right, i.e., water.