It was on October 2, 2019, that PM Narendra Modi declared the completion of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission with the construction of over 107 million toilets – calling India, for once and for all, “Open Defecation Free” (ODF). The announcement came 11 years ahead of the United Nations’ 2030 vision. However, even a year later, experts disagree on the rose-tinted declaration – bolstered further by the COVID-19 pandemic that perpetuates through improper hand hygiene and contact with wastewater. While toilets have been built, it would be a jump to say that the 100% ODF “self-declarations” by India’s 603,000 villages, 706 districts and 35 states and union territories are all true.

Success was preordained in the Swachh Bharat Mission – targeting the entire bulk of 602 million residents which defecated in the open. The government, way before 2019, had printed a calendar with the cut-off for October 2019 as the achievement of Total ODF status for India. In one sense, the country did achieve its target, in terms of its definition of ODF itself. As per the Toolkit for Urban Local Bodies by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the definition of ODF pertains mainly to the construction of a toilet and not its use or availability of water. Going a step further, facilities like availability of water and proper drainage are only covered in the broader definition of ODF+ and ODF++ targets under the mission.

It would be unfair to dismiss altogether the achievements of the Indian government – which has made toilets available to over 162 million households across the country. Bollywood has brought the issue to the big screen, with films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story) starring famous actors like Akshay Kumar highlighting the issue. “We need to appreciate that this government has made sanitation a big priority, which has not happened in the past… But this is such a big farce because open defecation by no means has been eliminated,” says Nazar Khalid, a research fellow at the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), to CNN. There is the elephant in the room, not being discussed.

While the government is proactively sharing details regarding the construction of toilets and implying their use based on self-declarations, valid and comprehensive data regarding their use is lacking. Due to the structure of subsidies and pace of disbursals, thousands of toilets are labelled “under construction” for years now. The awareness of the construction of toilets is nearly not enough. For example, there is no record of how many single-pit toilets are still being manually scavenged (if at all) at pre-decided intervals. There is a need to create a system to record what happens after a toilet has been constructed.

“Having a toilet does not always mean it is being used…” shares Advik Aggarwal, a past member of Project Raahat – an initiative with the Delhi government to curb open defecation in the capital city. In line with this, there have been reports of toilets being rendered defunct due to lack of use by the community itself. “Successful use of a toilet depends on a number of factors, including proper upkeep and community support.”, further mentions Aggarwal. Lack of social understanding also runs rampant in the Indian mindset. Toilets are considered to be the hotspots of infectious diseases, prompting people to defecate in the open. Apart from avoidance of “stinking urinals”, men avoid community toilets for “socialising” with their peers when they go out to defecate in the open.

“The toilet at home has no water. Sometimes, we store water in cans, but it is not enough for the entire family. It’s easier in the open where water is readily available.”, shares Roshani Bhandari of Malna village with TOI. Experts further cite unwillingness to pay (for public toilets), improper maintenance and lack of water as the primary reasons for lack of use of toilets. In some cases, defunct toilets are being used to store discarded items. Caste issues also play a major part – since, traditionally, it has been the plight of the lower caste “untouchables” in the Indian society to clean lavatories and sewers.

Three pressing needs emerge out of the entire issue. First, a need for the government to realise that access to toilets does not imply the usage of a toilet – it is a “social distance” we can avoid. Second, reporting of the metrics related to ODF+ and ODF++ metrics need to seep into the mainstream – not only for the urban but also rural regions. Finally, with access no longer deemed to be an issue, sensitisation needs to take priority – a much broader agenda than the five-year sprint to over 100 million toilets. It is not access, but proper use, which would have made Mahatma Gandhi flushed with pride.

Aayush Gupta is an MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad. He is a past member of Project Raahat – a student-run initiative to eradicate open defecation in the urban slums of Delhi, and believes in the power of people to create a better India.


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