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India can find inspiration from its local success stories

India is a signatory to the Millenium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation by 2015, reports Renuka Bisht.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2006 00:47 IST

India is a signatory to the Millenium Development Goal of halving the proportion of people without access to sanitation by 2015. As only less than a quarter of our citizens use sanitary facilities today, it does not look like we are going to keep this date.

Millions of Indians are forced to defecate in bags, buckets, fields, streams and roadside ditches. Although most of the people without sanitation coverage live in remote rural areas and urban slums that are the hardest to service, here we highlight successful models that when replicated can accelerate improved sanitation across the country.

The first block in the country to achieve 100 per cent sanitation was Nandigram-II in West Bengal. By 2003, all the households in the block had been furnished with toilets, which improved both the community surroundings and health.  Ram Krishna Mission, with state government and UNICEF support, set up a local production and supply infrastructure. This arrangement not only supplies inexpensive sanitary materials, it also props up local livelihoods. After following this example statewide, sanitation coverage in West Bengal has increased from almost zero to over eighty per cent.

Also in 2003, the Thandavampatti hamlet in Tamil Nadu became the first rural habitation to be declared open defecation free. Here the local administration collaborated with Gramalaya and women’s groups. With Water Partners International chipping in as well, the Kangaanipatti village also pulled off a similar feat. In the countdown to 2006, the villagers constructed 117 toilets in 100 hours!

If the above examples involve different sections of civil society teaming up to improve sanitation, groundbreaking public private partnerships are also pursuing similar objectives. Tirupur, also in Tamil Nadu, which generates a billion dollars through knitwear exports every year, offers a particularly promising example. While USAID provided important technical support, the private sector raised Rs 1,023 crore for a comprehensive urban project. This is intended to provide inexpensive sanitation for 80,000 slum residents, meet the growing demands of industrial users, and provide the town with its first sewerage system. Alandur and Chennai are also updating urban infrastructure on a commercially viable basis.

The female masons constructing, installing and maintaining sanitation blocks in Gujarat and Kerala would concur that improving sanitation is good business. Women can also be particularly potent triggers for improving sanitation services because they suffer worse indignities and insecurity when they relieve themselves in the open. In general, capacity-building across gender, class and caste lines is key to making sanitation socially and economically sustainable.

In Maharashtra, where over 2000 gram panchayats now have 100 per cent sanitation, the construction of public toilets for millions of slum residents has been carried out in consultation with the users. The social impact of this participatory approach cannot be overestimated.

In a peculiarly millennial update to caste-based scavenging, Chand Ram, the caretaker of a public toilet block in Dharavi, has said:"My family has cleaned toilets for generations. Here, I and three of my family provide 24-hour attendance in four shifts. Each of us earns Rs 1,500 a month. I had never dreamt of finding such a job, and with such accommodation, in Mumbai."

It is no wonder that the now-famous Sulabh model has been delivering sanitation to poor and low-caste Indians on a commercial rather than charity basis. For a fee of about one rupee, 10 million petty traders, laborers, domestic workers and others use Sulabh facilities today.

Finally, it is important to invest in children as agents of change. Student brigades in Bangladesh and Tajikistan have effectively taken sanitation messages from their schools to their communities.

In India, Rajasthan’s primary education councils have gotten together with UNICEF to promote sanitation in more than half of the 4300 schools the districts of Alwar and Tonk. It is planned that all the schools in the state will have sanitation facilities by 2007. In a salutary footnote on the spin-offs of sanitation, girls’ enrolment has already risen by 78 per cent.