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Nature's call isn't a dial away
By Sudhirendar Sharma

A recent UN report expresses surprise that India has more mobile phones than toilets but the fact remains that the issue of sanitation in India is more complex than viewed from the western perspective.


The fact that India has over 545 million cell phone users as compared to about 366 million people having access to improved sanitation makes one wonder 'why a country that is now wealthy enough cannot afford the basic necessity of a toilet?' Using such comparison, the United Nations University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (IWEH) in its recent report makes a case for expanding toilet coverage in a country where 69 per cent population still defecates in the open.

IWEH director Zafar Adeel, the author of the report, equates mobile penetration and toilet coverage as a reflection of country's continuing sanitation crises in light of its incredible telecom success story. However, it is erroneous to compare the two as mobiles phones will outnumber toilets at any given point in time because a toilet may have multiple users whereas a mobile phone has been designed for personal use only.

While presuming a high degree of rationality in concluding that it is only a matter of $ 300 that can help the poor own a toilet, Adeel seems ambivalent to the issue of rational decision making by the poor in making such a choice against other imperatives. The policy makers see toilets with the express intent of reducing contamination, but for the poor it enforces a culture of hygiene that in turn imposes additional cess on their daily survival.

No wonder, the de-regulation of telecom sector may have impelled the mobile phone market through private-sector investment but the subsidy-driven sanitation sector has failed to create a market for toilets. Total Sanitation Campaign, the government's flagship program launched in 1999, has suffered on account of peoples' apathy. Far from generating demand, it hasn't even encouraged adoption of toilets that come with a subsidy of Rs 2,500 per toilet.

The idea of sanitation, with toilet being its accepted symbol, may be on a wrong footing in a country where abject poverty, lack of housing and migration are consistent social realities.

Oblivious of such ground realities, the report has only been able to sensationalize the issue for seeking additional public investment in sanitation. Unlike in the west, toilets for a vast majority that survives on less than $2 a day may not be a good idea. For them, easing in public seems a democratic decree. Because public empathy towards squatting has remained secular, never did it trigger any strife in matter of appropriating public space for conducting private action.

One is not in support of open defecation but the fact is that shit in itself may not be a problem. Left on its own, it engages millions of microbes in enriching the soil with organic carbon. The moment it comes in contact with water, something that a toilet facilitates, the trouble starts. Each water body, be it a pond or a river, gets an undesired share of floating excreta at various stages of decomposition which proves fatal to some half a million children below the age of five.

The idea of sanitation, with toilet being its accepted symbol, may be on a wrong footing in a country where abject poverty, lack of housing and migration are consistent social realities. Further, the actual demand for toilets will continue to grow rather endlessly given the fact that the number of poor is growing exponentially, more families are breaking into smaller units and undetermined numbers of households are migrating in search of new opportunities.

A toilet makes unreasonable demand on increasingly scarce public resource - water, which is rarely factored while designing sanitation campaigns.

Added to it is that fact that lack of toilet, unhygienic conditions and infant mortality don't correlate in peoples' mind as they do in experts' papers. Consequently, Adeel's contention that an impressive (indirect) return of between $3 and $34 can be expected for every dollar spent on sanitation does not trigger any renewed interest. That open defecation generates externalities of contamination for the rest of the population therefore remains a theoretical proposition.

Need it be said that the issue of toilet is more than just a function of its cost. Its relation to the sociology and psychology of potential users has yet to be fully understood. As Captain Von Trapp says in the Sound of Music, we all seem to be 'suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity'. One such curious aspect relates to the fact that a toilet makes unreasonable demand on increasingly scarce public resource - water, which is rarely factored while designing sanitation campaigns.

Another curious aspect has recently come to light; hundreds of newly built toilets have been ripped apart by poor households in many parts of rural Madhya Pradesh. Such incidents reportedly abound across the countryside. The reason: possessing a toilet lifts the households above the poverty line (as it adds up the requisite points to jump the line) and strips the poor family of the lucrative monthly doles like assured employment and free food grains.

The virtue of living 'below poverty line' is without doubt compelling; a one-time toilet in contrast is a poor substitute. The tragedy is that neither has the technology of toilet been examined as a reflection of perceived needs nor has it been seen as intent to fuel demand through institutional innovation for fighting poverty. Unless the issue of toilet is perceived in its totality, it will be easier to dial than to flush.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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Feedback /Comments on this article
Toilets are inseparable from Water!

The article indeed points to one of the big flaws in our approach to providing toilets for the poor. NRHM makes provision for installing toilets in the village households through ASHA without addressing the practical issues involved. There is a need to design better out-door toilets with community participation that suiti the mindset of the people. No amount of preaching or condemnation of a practice can make a change.

Posted By: Vijay Rai
Dated: Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Development as West sees

How about the common HDI guidelines, are they not driven to cut across the western assessments and make our sustainable ways of actions and thinking to move across to the more developed world of high consumption life styles driving and benefitting ??

Posted By: Prabhjot Sodhi
Dated: Thursday, May 13, 2010

IT obsessed west

This comparision is really western imagination. Toilets if made to move can be used as mobile boots too. Next they will say why not have online toilets. or let mobiles transfer THINGS to toilet the cyberway.

Posted By: Daler Singh
Dated: Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where is water for toilets?

As one who has been living in a small village for the last 25 years, I have discussed and debated this with the poor and am amazed by the kind of rational arguments they come up with, regading its use. Let me flag only one issue: the use of water. While the open toilets they use need less than one litre of water, the kind of toilets that are prescribed for them make them use a minimum of five litres of water. When people are to fetch water walking on an average of 100-200 meters of distance for every bucket, and such public taps tend to go dry often making the distances farther and farther, they dont have the luxury of urban homes when every time you pee, you flush it out with 10 litres of water! This is only one small example. There are hundreds of such.

Posted By: Satheesh Periyapatna
Dated: Saturday, May 08, 2010

 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Human Development  > Water and Sanitation > Access to improved Sanitation

Toilet and the idea of a toilet
Monday, October 29, 2012

Government officials and urban elites remain baffled by widespread open defecation despite several programmes and high subsidies to end the practice. Isn’t it time they think beyond aesthetics and hygiene and instead focus on psychology?
 Other Articles in Human Development
Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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