Toilets are not an issue for you and me. But for millions in India’s villages, the absence of a toilet is a reality. For many it’s not even a need that is felt. For others, it is a question of financial priorities. Over 700 million people in India still live without proper sanitation. The resulting poor hygiene is responsible for approximately 1,000 children under five years dying every day due to diarrhoea alone. Poor hygiene, lack of sanitation and inadequate or unsafe water together contribute to about 88 per cent of diarrhoea deaths.
The fact is that sanitation issues did not command sufficient public investment till the end of the 1970s. A total 180 million man-days — that’s Rs 12 billion rupees — are lost every year due to sanitation-related diseases. Sanitation acquired importance only in the 1980s when the Government of India encouraged the construction of household toilets in the villages under the Central Rural Sanitation Programme.
However, the programme did not become a major success as it promoted a single design at a single price and gave a high subsidy with limited funds available. As a result, the government was only able to allot one or two latrines per village, and this often went to the prominent members.
The subsequent Total Sanitation Campaign has sought to increase toilet construction and usage by shifting to low subsidies and a greater stress on creating household involvement through awareness. Its success is evident from the fact that while in 1997-98 only about 1.3 million toilets were built, in 2003-04 the figure jumped to over 6 million, followed by over 9 million toilets being built in 2006-07. It is expected that the number of household toilets constructed during 2007-08 may actually exceed a crore.
The key to this success has been the involvement of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) under the Nirmal Gram Puraskar, the incentive award scheme. The PRIs have been motivated to promote sanitation in their community by influencing behaviour change and creating a demand. The Nirmal Gram Puraskar awards have seen an enormous increase in the number of awardees from across the country — from 40 PRIs awarded in 2004-05 to over 700 in 2005-06. Approximately, 30,000 PRIs have already applied for the award in 2008. All this has meant that states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are close to achieving the ‘Millennium Development Targets’.
While it is important to celebrate the gains made in increasing sanitation coverage nationwide, we must not forget that this is only the beginning. There is a long way to go before total sanitation is achieved. The challenge ahead is not only to maintain the momentum, but it is also to accelerate the pace of sanitation coverage.
Although 40 million households have been reached so far, there are still more than 70 million households across the country without toilets. The Total Sanitation Campaign and Nirmal Gram Puraskar have shown that sanitation is achievable. But before we turn the page, we must know that the campaign needs consistent and dedicated support. What we need is not a spring cleaning but a sea change conducted on a war footing.
NC Saxena is Former Secretary, Planning Commission