Working toilets will guarantee a Swachh Bharat
Homes with toilets in India more than doubled from 38.7% at the start of the Swachh Bharat Mission on October 2, 2014, to 78.98% in March 2018. The grand design is to ensure all households have access to a toilet so that India becomes open defecation free (ODF) by October 2, 2019.
Nationwide data shows that the effort to reach the ODF goal has been tremendous. Since the start of the mission, more than 64.32 million toilets have been built till March 6 this year, according to data tabled in the Lok Sabha in the current session, and 11 states and two Union territories have been declared ODF.
And there’s no slowing down. In his budget speech last month, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced that two crore more toilets will be added to the six crore built since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Building toilets is not enough. The challenge is to make people use them. And that can happen only when toilets are well-managed, from which all the waste generated is treated on-site or in treatment facilities, which otherwise causes diseases and death.
With and Without
In Gopalpura village of Chainpura cluster in Meghnagar block of Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, 100 of the 330 families have toilets, but almost none uses them.
The problem: the toilets have no water source, no water storage tank, and no drains or soak pits for the sewerage generated.
“The gram panchayat built it two months ago, but no money was transferred to my account. The toilet has no drains or tank. Water comes out of a hole in the wall and creates a stink right next to my home. So we just use it for bathing,” said Roop Singh Parth, a small farmer who grows wheat or maize each year and continues to use the neighbouring fields as a toilet.
Kalia Vir Singh, who lives across Parth’s house, uses his newly-constructed toilet to store grain.
“While the external specifications of these toilets more or less conform to the government requirements, all these toilets have is a hole for a drain that opens out into the field. These toilets, if used, cause more disease as they are built close to homes and water sources, which cause contamination and frequent bouts of diarrhoea,” said Gayatri Parihar, director, Vasudha Vikas Sanstan, a Dhar-based non-profit that works on child health, natural-resource management and sanitation.
Despite the growing number of toilets, more people defecate in the open in India than the rest of the world combined, which results in 1.7 million tonnes of human waste each day, according to Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report published in April 2017.
Around 78% of the sewage remains untreated. The piped sewerage systems do not treat the sewage, but merely dispose of them in rivers, groundwater or lakes, from where it leaches back into the soil, contaminating food and water, said the report.
The Gobar-dhan programme for the management of solid waste — including cattle dung, organic kitchen, agricultural and solid wastes — announced in the Union Budget is just the kind of decentralised solution needed to lower the dependence on sewerage systems for waste disposal in village clusters like Chainpura that are off the sewerage line.
Expected to be launched in April, the programme aims to collect and aggregate cattle dung and solid waste across about 700 clusters of villages in each district for sale to entrepreneurs to produce organic manure, biogas and bio-CNG.
“It’s not realistic to expect the government to lay down sewerage pipes or build advanced waste treatment units in every block. People here need inexpensive and off-line solutions like covered soak pits to contain the waste and convert it into compost and biogas, so that when these septic tanks are emptied, the sludge is not just thrown back in fields and lakes,” said Parihar.
“It’s not that the Centre doesn’t know about these issues. It is working closely with states and district collectors to raise training and awareness among panchayats, communities, and masons on design and construction,” said Madhu Krishna, country lead, sanitation, at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation India office.
“In such places, you need a twin-pit toilet with two pits used alternately. When one pit fills, it is sealed and a lever is turned to drain the sludge into the second pit. Over six to eight months, the waste in the first pit turns to manure and can be removed,” said Krishna.
Shared toilets are another option
“In urban centres with high migration and mobility, toilets also need to be accessible,” said K Sujatha Rao, former health secretary, and author of Do We Care? India’s Health System.
Google’s Swachh Bharat Toilet locater app allows users to search online for the nearest public toilets and get directions. The demand is clearly there, but the reviews by users show the app needs an update.
“App does not work for Delhi... Keeps showing Nashik. I am not going to fly to Nashik to take a leak... Please make this work,” wrote a frustrated Yash Mishra.
A social movement led by women against open defecation has caught momentum, with several women across the country refusing to marry into families with no toilets in states as far apart as Haryana and Telangana.
In August last year, a 23-year-old woman in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan became the first woman to be granted a divorce on grounds of “mental torture” after her husband reneged on his promise to build her a toilet when they got married in 2011.
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“Women in villages have to wait for dark to venture out in order to relieve [themselves] and as a result have to bear … physical pain,” said justice Rajendra Kumar Sharma, in his order.
“Saying that behavioural change takes time is no excuse. People will use toilets if they function like they should,” said Parihar.
Gopalpura village is already seeing a change, with both men and women using toilets to bathe in privacy.
“We don’t have to go to the handpump by the road everyday, where even strangers can watch our girls and women,” said Janaki Parth, 45, a resident of the village.