On World Toilet Day, Some Worries

Jayanti, a mother of four, lives in Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh. Her eyes well up as she speaks about her loss because of an absence of toilets in her village.

"I was pregnant, and went to relieve myself up the hill as we had no toilets. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen. To my horror, I realised that my baby was already halfway out."

She pauses, trying to keep her emotions in check before continuing, "His head was stuck. I was in great pain, and alone on the hill. I was there for over an hour before help finally arrived. But it was too late. I had lost my child and there was nothing I could do about it." Even more heart-wrenching than her story is the fact that hers is not a one-off case - 65 per cent of households in rural India do not have toilets.

For a country that has become a significant global economic player and ranks second in terms of the number of mobile phone users, open defecation and the lack of toilets is still a matter of embarrassment. India accounts for 59 per cent of the world's 120 crore people who defecate in the open. Apart from the obvious health and hygiene concerns, lack of access to toilets has been a grave threat to the security and dignity of women and girls.

A lack of toilets is also one of the biggest reasons for girls dropping out of school in the past.  According to the Unified District Information System for Education report (U-DISE) of 2014-15, the number of schools with separate toilet facilities for girls has increased from 0.4 million (37 per cent) in 2005-06 to over 1 million in 2014-15 (93 per cent). However, the report says only 31 per cent of girls' toilets and 27 per cent of boys' toilets have water available for flushing and cleaning. Though there is increase in coverage of toilets in schools, there are many dysfunctional and unusable toilets.

The human right to sanitation requires services to be available, safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable. However, this is far from available even for women and girls in urban areas, especially slums. A recent exploratory study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and WaterAid highlighted the experiences of women without adequate sanitation in slums in Bhopal and Delhi - fear, violence, shame, discrimination and lack of protection were the biggest concerns.

Newspapers have reported a number of cases where women and girls have been raped when they stepped out of their homes to defecate. Sometimes, they are also exposed to snake and insect bites while defecating in open spaces. The issue is also highly critical to children with disabilities, many of whom use public toilets due to poverty. Girls need to be carried to the toilets and given assistance, mostly by adult men. As the girls grow older, this becomes increasingly difficult.

However, India's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is indeed something to cheer about. It is commendable that the government has invested in providing access to toilets, with 89 lakh individual household latrines being constructed in the last year. 3.17 lakh toilets have been built in schools, a remarkable improvement in the state of affairs.

Concerns still persist, though. The central funding for the programme has been almost halved - from Rs. 12,100 crore in the 2014-15 (RE) to Rs. 6,236 crore in 2015-16 (BE) - and the states are expected to fund this going forward. This drastic reduction could lessen the efficiency and impact of the Swachh Bharat Mission. What needs to be now done is to ensure the functionality and maintenance of these toilets, and to periodically monitor behaviour change among the target communities.

The allotment for Information, Education and Communication also has been halved from 15 to eight per cent of the overall budget, which poses a threat to achieving quality monitoring and documentation of the usage of new toilets. As the country gears up to the massive challenge of improving the sanitation scenario, it is imperative that the limited budgetary allocations and well-meaning objectives are not frittered away by poor planning, limited participation of the communities and hurried implementation.

(Cherian Thomas is the CEO of World Vision India, a grassroots organisation that works for children in India.)

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