The hype around India’s urbanisation will prove nothing more than a chimera if a random check were to be undertaken of the state of public amenities in cities. Definite lacuna would be the lack of access to, and availability of, clean toilets. According to the 2006 World Health Organisation Report, only 22 per cent of rural and 59 per cent of urban India has access to sanitation, the national average a measly 33 per cent. The 7th World Toilet Summit, being held in the Capital, has brought the focus back on this important issue, which has a huge impact on health, mortality as well as the economy.
According to one estimate, treating health hazards like diarrhoea (an offshoot of poor sanitation) may cost the country Rs 200 crore; the loss of working days due to the ailment, a whopping Rs 300 crore. Worldwide, the WHO estimates, 200 million people suffer from schistosomiasis, a disease caused by lack of access to hygienic sanitation facilities. As things stand, the Millennium Development Goal on sanitation, which hopes to halve the proportion of people who do not have access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation by 2015 and to provide toilets for all by 2025, seems to be an uphill task. The UN has declared 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation.
In urban India, even pay and use public lavatories often don’t make the cut in terms of cleanliness and maintenance. Naturally, the target population sees them as stinking and unhygienic. Moreover, these toilets tend to concentrate around areas that are advertisement worthy, leaving more needy areas uncovered. As for the slums in urban areas, they always figure at the bottom of the list of priorities. Since governments tend to look at people living in these areas as a burden on civic infrastructure, their needs are shortchanged at all times. To make toilets available to the maximum number of people, the government needs to invest in low-cost options that are suitable and simple to replicate. It also needs to rope in NGOs and corporates to build more facilities. It must understand that there is a direct correlation between urban poverty and poor health, which is largely a result of inadequate sanitation facilities.