Behind the full-page ads that the UPA has been releasing on its flagship Total Sanitation Campaign — 2012 is the deadline for 100 per cent coverage — there is an embarrassing story. It is of tardy progress of work, even in high-profile constituencies. If things move at this pace, meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals (slashing poverty, hunger and disease by 2015) will be a tough challenge.
The Indian arm of the Britain-based NGO WaterAid, which works on water and sanitation issues, assessed 27 constituencies (in case of Rajya Sabha members, it is the area they represent) of key Cabinet ministers, the Leader of Opposition and ruling alliance chairperson on whether they’ll meet the 2012 target at the current pace of work. The study revealed that only 10 will meet the target.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s district of permanent residence, Kamrup in Assam, is likely to reach the target by 2043; Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Jangipur in West Bengal in 2013; L.K. Advani’s Gandhinagar in Gujarat in 2029; And Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, will manage to scrape through in 2011. The ‘messiah’ of the underclass, Lalu Prasad fares no better. His constituency, Chapra, will take the longest time to meet the target (2058) while Minister of Rural Development (his ministry oversees the sanitation programmes) Raghuvansh Prasad Singh’s Vaishali will reach in 2017. Minister of Health A. Ramadoss’ Villupuram — who surely knows the connection between sanitation and health — will meet the target in 2016. Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s Thiruvananthapuram will meet the target soonest in 2008.
Sanitation is the cornerstone of public health and a tool for social inclusion of marginalised classes. Only 23.7 per cent of Dalit households and 17 per cent of tribal households have access to toilet facilities as compared to 42.3 per cent for general households. Better facilities will have benefits that go beyond the immediate goals.
But what is more important are the dignity, self-esteem and safety issues that proper sanitation bring. In the larger perspective, if India misses the target, it would also have an important bearing on the world’s MDG goals. And, in the International Year of Sanitation, this is not a comforting thought.