By Samyak Purkait

Edited by  Nandita Singh, Senior editor, The Indian Economist

Even after 67 years of independence, nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion population have no toilet at home, but ironically more people own a mobile phone, according to the Census 2011 data. India is a country where millions have access to cutting edge technology and consumer goods, but paradoxically a large number of our poor lack access to even basic sanitation facilities. The eastern states of Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bihar, among our poorest States, present a dismal picture where the numbers are even worse.

India is a country with skewed development, with the fruits of economic prosperity, arguably, eluding the rural population. While some states have achieved remarkable growth, the others are unable even to provide basic human amenities to their citizens. There are vast areas in both rural and urban India where people don’t have proper toilets – a fact which is unthinkable in the technology driven life of today’s world.  No wonder we have such high statistics of disease, pollution and other health hazards, as people are forced to defecate in the open for the lack of any other choice. Of late, we have come across disturbing instances of crimes perpetrated against women when they had to take a trip outside their houses to do what is a basic necessity of life.

While some work must have been done in the past, the new central government has ambitious plans of making India open defecation-free within five years, and has asked states to ensure toilets for all. Modi’s regime is committed to ringing in a Swachh Bharat by 2019, which marks Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. The health hazards aside, assaults on our women arising out of their compulsion to relieve in the open, particularly at night, are on the increase. We have noted with horror the rising number of instances of atrocities against women, and in our efforts to ensure safety and security to our women, the Government’s plan is a welcome step.

The proposal by the Modi government is indeed a noble one, and will immensely help the poor, but the question here is whether we have the political will and the wherewithal to do this.

Coming first to the logistical part, India is a huge country, and to provide a toilet to each family is an enormous task even on paper, let alone on the ground.  The allocation of a huge number of resources will be required for this project, which will be the mother of all projects. Thorough planning and adequate resources need to be used efficiently to fulfill this dream.

Funds are definitely the primary reason for concern. Even if we wish to provide only basic sanitation facilities, we will need a substantial source of money. We already have schemes such as the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (rechristened Swachh Bharat scheme) and the funds allocated under these projects can be used for the current initiative. Then even the corporate sector can be roped in to contribute to this activity, which is in its true sense, a nation building exercise.  Corporates hardly miss out on opportunities such as this, and big companies and corporate trusts, like Tata Consultancy Services, Bharti Foundation, Hindustan Unilever, Aditya Birla Group, ITC and Adani Group, among others, have already announced plans to focus their corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending on toilet building, especially for girls. Most of them have pledged substantial sums (Rs. 100 crore or thereabouts) and are talking about building thousands of toilets. The new Companies Act, amended last year, mandates 2 percent CSR spending for all profitable companies. Earlier, companies with surplus profits were not sure where to spend it, and would often indulge in, what can be termed as, PR exercises. Now they know how to channelise their CSR activities, achieve their targets, and get some brownie points as well. We may also start a national Relief Fund and ensure that donations to the Fund are exempt from tax. I am sure the Aam admi of the country will join in with these efforts. It’s the taxpayers’ money that is funding the existing projects, and we will not contributing some more, if possible, for this noble cause. I am certain that many of us will do whatever it takes to avoid the embarrassment of looking out of train windows early in the morning, particularly near a big railway station.

Land, even if it is small in size, has to be found for the construction of such toilets. Finding such places may not be difficult in rural regions, but it might prove to be problematic in the urban areas, especially in slums, where a large number of people jostle with each other for a toe hold.

Then there is the issue of drainage, which similarly, may not be a problem in village areas. The urban toilets need to be connected to sewers, which will ultimately flow into a canal or a river. Now, this proves to be another issue as the main drains and rivers are terribly polluted. Take for instance the Ganges (the cleaning of which is a current pet project of Narendra Modi) or the Yamuna River that flows through Delhi. These rivers are extremely polluted, and by allowing human waste to flow into these, we will further contaminate the rivers. Thus, these rivers and drains also need to be periodically cleaned, before and after such toilets are made. An alternative solution may be to explore the option of using bio-digester technology, which uses bacteria to convert waste into odourless compost, for the safe disposal of excreta.

Ensuring supply of water is also a problem. While it may not be possible to ensure running water, we need to provide, at least, a storage system.

To add to these existing obstacles, we have the issue of political will. Responding to the Prime Minister’s call, The Chhattisgarh Government, for obvious reasons, were the first to be off the block and pledged to construct nearly one lakh pakka toilets in the next three months. However, there are other state governments that might put the project on the back burner as it may not be in their scheme of things. This toilet-building initiative will, at the most, impact and benefit those who use such toilets, whereas development projects such as the building of bridges, factories, power plants or highways, are projects which are much more visible in nature and will stimulate a lot of economic activity. Moreover, it will help the governments and the ruling political parties to achieve their ultimate political targets.  Thus, there are considerable challenges for a project of this scale and magnitude, and also one of insignificant political benefit. It will take a lot of dedication of the political class, as well the general people, to fulfill this goal of providing toilets for every Indian within a reasonable time frame.

For the Centre’s plans to materialise, we need to have a road map backed up by a concrete action plan.  We need to involve volunteers and NGOs. Our former governments have already done some work in this respect, but so far it has been woefully inadequate or below the standard. Apparently many people do not use the toilets built for them as they are of sub standard quality. One can safely conclude that diversion of funds through corrupt means resulted in a shoddy job. To exclude such possibilities, we need to entrust the job to the corporate sector, which would bear the responsibility of building and maintaining these facilities.

Apart from unavailability of running water, another factor thtat contributes to poor sanitation, particularly in the rural areas, is the mindset of the people. Many people, particularly those who are from orthodox backgrounds, consider it inauspicious and unhygienic to have toilets in the house and would prefer to go outdoors for their ablutions. People tend to resist change, and this malaise needs to be addressed by counselling and community involvement at the grass root level.

One of the parameters of development of a country is the living condition of its people, and if we can ensure proper sanitation and hygiene for our citizens, we would be able to usher in the acchhe din, which in turn, will provide an impetus to our quest for FDI flow.

Samyak is someone with wide variety of interests from social work to politics to sports etc. A fun loving extrovert sort of person, he is always willing to participate in constructive forums which help hone his soft as well as hard skills. A keen observer of political events and always willing to scratch the surface and go deeper into the political actions of politicians.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind