With India accounting for 58% of all open defecations in the world, the government on Sunday sought active involvement of all parties concerned including women panchayat representatives to sensitise the people in creating awareness about public hygiene.
"On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, I would like to mention one such case which is a shame on all of us. No other country in the world where about 60% women have to go to the field for open defecation," rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said in a function organised by the Hunger Project.
Terming the prevailing open defecation in many parts of the country as a "blot on India", Ramesh said this is an issue of public hygiene.
"These women do not have access to hygiene. This is actually a very sad commentary on our society. We seem to be not doing much about it," the minister rued.
He said Gandhiji had strived for transforming villages into nirmal grams (village free from open defecation).
"There are some states like Haryana, Sikkim, Maharashtra, Kerala where hygiene conditions exist but in other states it is not visible," Ramesh noted.
Terming the situation as "paradox", he said, "We prefer to remain clean and dump filth outside. This is a pardox -- individual hygiene and public filth. This is something that we should take up as a challenge. It is a challenge for political parties, the government and society also."
Describing the prevailing condition of rivers, he said, "Rivers are not rivers in India. Rivers have become sewers. The 500-km stretch of Ganga between Kannuaj and Varanasi is just a sewer."
Seeking wider participation of everybody in the nirmal gram movement, Ramesh said, "We should take a pledge that apart from constructing roads and schools, the most important work will be hygiene. Villages should be free from open defecation and become nirmal grams."
The minister gave away prizes to scribes for their reports on women and panchayat issues.
The Hunger Project works in nine states in India to strengthen the leadership of elected women leaders in village panchayats.
Terming the large number of women representation in panchayat bodies as a "peaceful revolution", he said, "there are 15 lakh elected representatives in panchayats. There are 50% reservation for women in many states (panchayats)".
"Centre is also bringing about a law for women reservation in Parliament. Many women self-help groups are coming up in south India. There are 25 lakh women self-help groups in the country now. Andhra, Kerala, Bihar, Orissa are a few states where many women are coming up in panchayats and self-help groups," Ramesh said.
Admitting that rural India is still lagging behind in basic amenities, he said, "It true that out of six lakh villages, not many villages have good roads, schools, health care centres. There is no shortage of funds but where the money goes it needs to be monitored."
Seeking the active role of women representatives and women self-help groups in monitoring and implementing rural welfare schemes, he said "I hope that through panchayats and women self-help groups, implementation and monitoring of the schemes will be strengthened."
He said expenditure on rural schemes is just next to security.
"Every year we spend Rs 1 lakh crore for rural India while for security we spend Rs 1.40 lakh crore. With the monitoring by the panchayats and women self-help groups, there will be pressure on government to implement the scheme more effectively."