“Lovers built the Taj Mahal for their love. But I couldn’t build a loo,” says Keshav, the lead character of the Bollywood movie ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Kahani’, a commercial film in support of governmental campaigns to improve sanitation in India.
Access to sanitation has attracted more attention in India over the past few years thanks to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). The effort follows a judgment by the Supreme Court of India which recognised sanitation as a fundamental right in the 1990s, and the UN General Assembly resolution that recognised sanitation as a distinct human right.
The project will be an immense challenge for India, which was responsible for 60% of the world’s open defection five years ago. India has a huge population and a major lack of accessible toilets – both in private households and in public spaces. Roughly half of the rural population are estimated to lack proper access to sanitation. In rural areas, people often go to remote fields to relieve themselves – separate for men and women.
To reach the 2019 goal, the country will need both behaviour change and new infrastructure to succeed. As of now, it appears to be headed towards ensuring that every house has an individual toilet in the next couple of years. But this will only be an important first step in a series needed to ensure the country has interventions covering all dimensions of sanitation.
One of the most important challenges will be to build community and public toilets. In a number of places, community toilets are necessary because building individual toilets at home may not be feasible, for instance, because of lack of space. Also, they are necessary for people without a house, such as homeless people and migrant workers. The need for community toilets is already recognised as part of current sanitation interventions but is often not implemented. And local authorities often lack the funds to pay someone to undertake the cleaning of the facilities once built.
Caste and gender
India has to be careful so that the project does not interfere with its efforts to boost gender equality. Historically, campaigns pushing for more toilets to be built often cite the modesty of women as the main reason – toilets; after all, prevent women from exposing themselves in public.
Caste is another factor. For centuries, the lower castes have performed the task thanklessly as manual scavangers and were treated as “untouchables”. They continue to do so despite de jure abolition of untouchability. Manual scavenging, abolished by law long back, remains a scourge in Independent India till date. Unless it is totally eliminated and those engaged in it are rehabilitation, total sanitation will be a dream. To help those living in the margins, any sanitation campaign must, therefore, must have a strong element of social justice.