By Sharmila Ray, Senior Program Officer, PRIA
A couple of months back my cousin and I got talking about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It’s a good policy if it can be implemented and Prime Minister Modi is right, having strong, efficient sanitation services is a good way to restore dignity to India’s people. Sanitation is also of course an essential service and just by that it should cover 100% of the country’s population. This was my point.
My cousin agreed but raised a question. If in the last few decades of the 19th century, people in England, rich and poor both, could rally the government for water and sanitation services why was it that in India, it takes so much rhetoric and government policy pressure in as late as 2014. Why was it that Indians, regardless of social status were willing to spend so much money and energy on marriages and festivals but not on ensuring basic community or household level sanitation? He was exasperated “Why can’t they build more toilets?”
According to UNICEF, nearly 50% of India’s population defecates in the open. 37 million from India’s cities resort to open defecation which is about 12% of India’s urban households. The situation is worse in smaller cities (population<100,000) with open defecation at around 22%.
My experience from the field while working on SLBConnect tells me that most people do understand that these are important services. During field work, many have told me how unfair it is that they don’t have access to clean water or that even where toilets have been made, there is no water connections/source close by. There have been quite a few awareness raising campaigns in the last decade and these seemed to have worked.
In many small towns and cities, more than half the houses are not connected to sewerage facilities either because there are no sewerage connections close by, or because their households haven’t been connected to the main city sewerage network. In some towns, houses do not want to connect with the main sewerage line because they believe they will be charged for services, something they are unwilling to pay for.
In the cities we are in the process of surveying- Ajmer, Jhunjhunu and Rae Bareli- the urban poor living in squatter colonies have dug pit toilets or arranged for soak pits and other such way of discharging waste water since their houses are not covered by sewerage networks. Not every can afford to do so though. Some houses are too small to support pit toilets since these need constant cleaning otherwise feces starts piling high and the houses start smelling and becoming unhygienic. Only the young girls of the house use these pit toilets for the sake of their safety, the others go out in the open. Not everyone owns a residential space big enough to have soak pits either.
There is also the population of urban poor living in non-notified and unauthorized slums. To put it simply non-notified and unauthorized slums are those slums which are not recognized by the State. This means that residents have no claim on any service- water, sanitation, electricity etc.
These are people literally in a no man’s land. They do not own the houses they live in, the utensils are not theirs, nor the clothes, nor anything else. These can be razed, burnt, thrown, taken without any legal implications. Come monsoon, houses get washed away, and then plastic covers and mud houses emerge again out of the slush like sprouting mushrooms. Every monsoon. No sanitation either. So people defecate in the open and there is no way to clean the place. When you are in no man’s land nothing belongs to you, and nothing possibly can. In this piece of land you are the mercy of others. What can you possibly claim here?
Just building scattered toilets will not work and cannot work. Unless these basic infrastructure issues are addressed along with the necessary behavior change, an open defecation free India will remain a distant dream and the content of mere rhetoric.