Vol – XLVII No. 42, October 20, 2012, Editorial , Economic and Political Weekly
Indians have to accept that sanitation is not a dirty word.
What a lot of fuss about a remark that is at worst a predictable alliteration and at best an attempt to provoke a discussion on something we hate to talk about – sanitation. Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh, who is not averse to hogging media attention, chose to launch the Nirmal Bharat Yatra against open defecation by making the deliberately provocative statement that India had more temples than toilets. As he had hoped, his remark has triggered a discussion. However, the discussion has not been on the pitiful lack of toilets but on religion.
The Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson decided that Jairam Ramesh’s remark “hurt the fine fabric of faith and religion” – forgetting that the “fine fabric” of human dignity is hurt each day as almost half the population of this country is forced to defecate in the open. And the Congress Party, instead of reiterating its commitment to an urgent need like s­anitation, chose to tie itself up in knots, as it has been doing lately, by talking about how it respects “the sanctity of every religious place irrespective of the community it belongs to”. In this pointless exchange of words, both parties missed a chance of demonstrating their understanding and commitment to the concerns of the aam aadmi and aurat. In fact, Jairam Ramesh has to be commended for emphasising that sanitation has an important gender dimension and that it is women and girls who suffer most the consequences of a toilet-less existence. One cannot recall another senior government functionary in recent times repeatedly reiterating this important aspect of sanitation.
If the public space for debate had not been so dominated by the corruption scandals being unearthed each day, sanitation might well have become the talking point. Around the same time as Ramesh launched the Nirmal Bharat Yatra from Sevagram, Wardha, which will end in November at Bettiah in West Champaran, Bihar, the Supreme Court directed all states to ensure that within six months every school had separate toilets for girls. This is after it had already given similar directions last year but which many states had failed to implement. The record of most states on this question of separate functioning – the key word being “functioning” – toilets for girls is dismal. Only 44% of schools that come under the Right to Education (RTE) have separate toilets for girls. This is the national average but the performance of individual states on this count is shockingly poor: Chhattisgarh, 20%; Jammu and Kashmir, 22%; Madhya Pradesh, 23% and Bihar, 27%.
The lack of toilets is not the only reason girls drop out of school between the ages of 11 and 14, but it is an important one. In their absence, young adolescent girls have to risk going out into the open fields during the day, or run all the way to their homes. Other factors also contribute to girls dropping out – the distance of the school from their homes, the lack of public transport, their burden of household chores and looking after siblings, the lack of female teachers, the absence of safety during the journey to school even if there is transport, and early marriage. Yet the absence of toilets is an easier problem to fix than some of the others and could start making a dent in the high dropout rate of girls from schools.
On the larger question of sanitation, there are few who will deny that this issue takes on a peculiar twist in the Indian context. While personal cleanliness is raised to the level of a religious rite, there is little concern about dirt and filth in public spaces. As a society we continue to accept that some people are born to clean the dirt so that others can avoid thinking about it. Why, for instance, despite the ban on manual scavenging in 1993, do lakhs of dalits, the majority of them women, still do the daily and inhuman task of removing human faeces from the estimated 26 lakh dry toilets in different parts of India? And why does this not raise enough of a stink? Typically, instead of implementing the existing law, the government has now tabled a new law in Parliament that includes those who clean sewers and septic tanks. Are we to believe that a new law will end this shameful practice if nothing has happened to abolish it, 65 years after Independence? Ultimately, if we are to end manual scavenging it is the casteist mindset that has to be abolished
You can have programmes to end open defecation, or give subsidies to build individual toilets, or offer panchayats incentives to construct community and public toilets. But things will change only when Indians decide sanitation is not a dirty word; that no one group of people is destined to clean up after other people; that toilets can be the temples of a modern, just and democratic country.