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Politics On Toilets: MEANINGLESS VIEWS, NO ACTION, By Dr S Saraswathi, 14 Oct, 2013 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 14 October 2013

Politics On Toilets


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


There can be no better example of a non-controversial topic raising bitter debate in the country and a non-political issue assuming political overtones than the recent exchange between top politicians over construction of adequate toilets in India. Not only is it a most ridiculous state of public discussions, but worse reveals a sorry state of sanitation in India.


BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s remark during the course of his speech on Gandhi Jayanti that “India should build toilets before temples”, triggered a superfluous debate. He was emphasizing the importance of development in which provision of basic facilities required for healthy life comes first. Politically viewed, his remarks are but reiteration of what Union Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh said a few months ago.


“Toilets first, temples later” has good chances of becoming an accepted “secular” election slogan for both principal national parties. For Ramesh, it is a matter of national shame, that 60% of world’s population without toilet facility is in India. “There are more temples in the country than toilets”, he stated when he was in charge of sanitation which incited VHP and the Bajrang Dal to react as if it was an attack on the faithful and a call that is likely to weaken – nay “destroy the fine fabric of religion and faith”.


The Minister’s further elaboration: “No matter how many temples we go to, we are not going to get salvation. We need to give priority to toilets and cleanliness” added fuel to the fire.  Presently, Modi agrees that villages have hundreds of thousands of temples but no washrooms.  He recalls how Gandhiji emphasized the importance of this issue.


The advices could have received positive response but for the intervention of another politician raising suspicions over Modi’s credentials to offer this opinion. He recalls a past observation made by Modi that those who clean toilets get spiritual pleasure out of it. The context and the intention of the observation, if true, have not been revealed. The general public is not interested in the debate, but on the contrary, sick of this meaningless exchange.


The 2011 census states that 49.8% of households have no toilet facilities and defecate in the open. It is a constant reminder of the country’s poverty seen in its inability to provide even minimum basic facilities. India stands next only to Ethiopia with the largest percentage of population without toilet facility.


Indeed, India needs a toilet revolution. The fight is many sided – against open defecation, manual scavenging, and the treatment of scavengers as descendants of “unclean castes”. In many places, illegal and improper sewer connections from private houses and shops to drain sewage into stormwater drains and public waterways pose a big heath hazard right in the heart of cities like Chennai. Success of the long-awaited toilet revolution will lead to progress in health, education, environment, and even social interaction. It is also necessary to fulfil our commitment to ensure human rights for all.


The situation is much below the national average in some States. About 77% of homes in Jharkhand, 76.6% in Odisha, and 75.8% in Bihar lack toilet facility. The Census Commissioner stressed the despicable practice of open defecation in the country while releasing data and attributed this to persistence of traditional practices and lack of education. The BBC took pleasure in broadcasting to the world the glaringly contrasting picture of nearly 50% of India’s total population having no toilets, but a higher percentage of people owning a mobile phone.


Urbanization has progressed fast in India and in the process has seen growth of slums and its population. Large infrastructure projects like metro, railways, and power supply are undertaken unaccompanied with simple but essential things like public toilets not to speak of private toilets.   In fact, railway tracks have become convenient toilets not only for those using the railway but for people living along the tracks. Waterways not excluding the holy Ganga have become natural toilets and pose the biggest challenge to sanitary authorities. Proliferation of cities with local and migrant households forming slums without private toilets at home and depending on woefully inadequate number of public toilets worsens the situation.


However, construction of clean toilet is a universal problem across nations. It’s not without a felt need that the World Toilet Organization – also known as the World Toilet Foundation – was set up as a non-profit organization in 2001 with the objective of “eliminating the toilet taboo and delivering sustainable sanitation”. It has over 150 member organizations in over 50 countries.


This Foundation organizes World Toilet Summit annually. So far, 12 summits have been organized – the latest in Indonesia. These are intended to discuss the growing sanitation crisis as a world problem and representatives from NGOs, governments, sanitation industries and business people participate.


Several countries are facing problems like India in different degrees and are experimenting with various methods. Firm action and continuous efforts alone will succeed. The toilet revolution in Linfen, China needs to be emulated. This city has also won UN Habitat’s International Award for Best Practice. Linfen’s revival started in 2008 and one of its key projects was “toilet revolution”. In the World Toilet Summit 2011, China’s environmental problems concerned with toilets became the focus. A massive toilet transformation project was undertaken. Foreign tourists’ comment on toilet facility as “inconvenient” was taken as a challenge to trigger this revolution. It has adopted the strategy of public participation.


Thailand too has recently taken up the third phase of Public Health Ministry’s Master Plan, which includes “toilet revolution” with the object of covering 90% of households by 2016. A major item is to replace old “squat toilets” with western style seated toilets in Bangkok.


All countries seem to have undergone “toilet revolution” at some stage of their economic development.  England of course is the cradle of toilet civilization. The Bay West Revolution in Europe signifies economically sound alternative to washrooms. It only confirms that this revolution is now overdue in India. Sulabh International’s efforts have produced some results but much below the requirement. How much can an organization do?


The Supreme Court last October directed the Union and State governments to provide basic infrastructure including drinking water and toilets in all schools within six months. The order has led to some action.  School surveys have revealed that lack of toilet facility is a major obstacle for education of girls.


Toilet revolution is inextricably linked with mechanization of sewage operations and liberation of manual scavengers from their unclean occupation and their education and rehabilitation in clean jobs. Manual scavenging was abolished under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993 by Parliament but State governments have to adopt the law as the subject falls in the State list. A revised version was introduced in 2012 putting the responsibility on local bodies and railway authorities to construct adequate number of toilets in their jurisdiction. But it is still short of assuring total liberation and rehabilitation of those employed in this field.


Public cooperation, commitment and involvement of authorities at all levels are indispensable for achieving the toilet revolution. It’s strange but true that people who give donations for temple festivals are not so forthcoming to construct toilets, even for the benefit of fellow devotees at the site.  Action rather than meaningless debates is the need of the hour.---INFA                                                   


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)








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