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'Out of toilet' solutions!
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Given our cultural history equating cleanliness to distancing of 'refuse' from human habitation, many Indians are not keen on using the toilet. But then toilets offer no better solution if the municipal sewage continues to contaminate our shrinking water resources!

Fly in public toilets in India isn't breaking news, but it certainly is when one spots flies in public conveniences across Europe! There are plenty of these visible in public urinals at the Schiphol Airport, for example, and no one seems to be complaining. Interesting, none of it fly as these have been etched into the wells of the urinals. It doesn't seem a corporate logo of the pot supplier nor a familiarizing tip for east- bound travelers!

Spillage has been pervasive, till an economist resolved the malaise by etching black houseflies into the wells of the urinals. "If a man sees a fly, he aims at it." It has worked as spillage is now down by an incredible 80 percent. The behavioural economists have effectively used what they call libertarian paternalism, to bring about subtle but dramatic change in peoples' behaviour. This new breed of economists has begun to influence public policy in the west.

Not in India though, where relentless efforts to transform public behaviour offer exciting photo opportunity to foreign tourists only. With more than 60 per cent of Indians lacking access to toilets, most open spaces are veritable public conveniences. As no one gets implicated for violating public space, easing in public seems a democratic decree. It is shocking revelation that some 50 per cent of rural households revert to open defecation even after possessing toilets.

There is an element of truth in what Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul wrote following his travel in India, almost half a century ago. In his travelogue An Area of Darkness, published in 1964, Naipaul had argued that most Indians suffer from claustrophobia 'once inside an enclosed toilet'. Naipaul had even wondered at the society's 'collective blindness about the practice, arising out of the fear of pollution and perhaps an innate belief that they are the cleanest people in the world'.

These observations have not been reasoned into sanitation programs, though our cultural history clearly equates cleanliness to distancing of 'refuse' from human habitation. Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, whose sulabh movement remains a historic milestone in sanitation, argues that cultural transition from 'being in the open' to 'coming into the closet' will be slow and painful. Pathak reluctantly accepts that toilet has only been an essential part of the solution.       With more than 60 per cent of Indians lacking access to toilets, most open spaces are veritable public conveniences. It is shocking revelation that some 50 per cent of rural households revert to open defecation even after possessing toilets.


Rural Sanitation
The sanitation coverage among rural households has increased from 21.9 percent in 2001 to 27.3 percent in 2004 and has more than doubled since then to 63.91 per cent (of 2001 Census households) as on May 20, 2009. The total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) is one of the eight flagship programmes of the Government. TSC projects have been sanctioned in 593 rural districts of the country at a total outlay of Rs. 17,885 crore with a Central share of Rs. 11,094 crore. Since 1999, over 5,56 crore toilets have been provided for rural households under TSC. A significant achievement has also been the construction of of 8.71 lakh school toilets and 2.72 lakh Anganwadi toilets. With increasing budgetary allocations and focus on rural areas, the number of households being provided with toilets annually has increased from only 24,41 lakh in 2002-03 to 98.7 lakh in 2006-07.

It is an irony that toilet has remained centrepiece in country's sanitation program with an elusive aim to make the countryside free of squatting by 2012. History is unlikely to be rewritten so soon, given the fact that Rs. 6,240 crore spent through the Total Sanitation Campaign during past six years has only caused minor stir. With little change in peoples' attitude, toilet coverage has remained an exercise in number crunching with as many users slipping out of it.

Clearly, signing up toilet-subsidy cheques doesn't take us any close to ending this shameful legacy. Understanding individual's psychology and inferring why a person behaves in a certain manner may be crucial to correcting undesirable mannerism. However, sociologists argue that in matter of public hygiene, orientalism has contributed to public apathy. Lackadaisical policy making has further contributed to it by reaffirming the belief 'we are like that only'.

No wonder, squatting and micturition hasn't been frowned upon. Even Mahatma Gandhi could hardly succeed in using humiliation as a tool to question one's perceived assumptions, despite insisting that anyone joining his ashram had to first clean toilets. Conversely, however, public apathy towards squatting has remained secular; never did it trigger any class or caste strife in matter of appropriating public space for conducting private action.

      Glaring paradox is that we do get horrified at the sight of a squatter but have resigned acceptance of a sewage laden river.

Therein lies the strength of squatting as an inviolable social practice! In living their lives in perpetual visibility, squatters actually render themselves invisible to the state. Howsoever humiliating, squatters seem convinced that private act of waste elimination in 'public' ensures as purified a body as of those who perform the act in the privacy of a toilet. It is the technology of plumbing that has drawn distinction between two seemingly similar body functions.

One is not suggesting squatting as a human right but the glaring paradox is that we do get horrified at the sight of a squatter but have resigned acceptance of a sewage laden river. Does a toilet not offer an exaggerated sense of personal purity at an incredible cost to natural systems like rivers and lakes? Given the irreparable state of the municipal sewage treatment system, it will be horrific to find millions of squatters joining the streamlined technology of waste disposal!

The Planning Commission gives an unnerving jolt: some 4-5 lakh children below the age of 5 die every year of waterborne diseases. But nowhere does this piece of statistics suggest that all deaths are caused by the scourge of open defecation. Nor is cumulative elimination of waste through inefficient sewage infrastructure ever implicated, because it challenges the notion of personal purity, political authority and state capitalism. The toilet remains inconclusive solution!

With its extensive paraphernalia the toilet makes unreasonable demand on increasingly scare public resource - water, which limits its spread. Applying libertarian paternalism to India's sanitation enigma would favour transforming 'informal squatter islands' into permanent municipal spaces where individual waste will get managed in a way that produces subjectivity than shame. The state's role will then be limited to aesthetically managing such islands.

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

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  Environmentalist, development analyst and columnist  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, a critic of the contemporary development processes. A prolific writer, he was a senior correspondent with India's leading weekly, India Today, and the science editor for The Pioneer newspaper. He holds degrees in agriculture and environmental science and lives in Delhi. He is attached with the Ecological Foundation.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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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