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Despite India's rapid economic development, poor sanitation extracts a heavy toll on its public health, especially among women and children. But with the new government at the Centre, the efforts for total sanitation across urban and rural India, under the Swachh Bharat initiative, seems to have taken a distinctive new direction. The arrival of a progressive new India was reflected in a recent protest against lack of proper sanitation at Kushinagar district in Uttar Pradesh, where six newly-wed young women chose to walk out of their in-law’s homes, instead of walking into the fields to defecate in the open.
But, is India prepared to provide the answer to this rising demand for total sanitation? The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has conducted various studies to review the situation and has provided suggestions to reach the target.
The challenges, however, are manifold: with around 130 million households lacking basic sanitation facilities and over 72 per cent of the rural population relieving them in the open. Such unhygienic practices cost India 600,000 lives annually and expose a third of the nation’s women to the risk of rape and sexual assault. Eliminating open defecation would mean immense efforts by the governments both at the Centre and state-level as the costs are very high. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already shown urgency for construction of toilets with the development of model villages by using MPLAD funds. At present, the political will is at the highest level, so we should act fast. Besides, we need some active participation from the corporate world, NGOs and other stakeholders. We need a strong drive for total sanitation and it must go beyond symbolism,” says Rakesh Johri, Senior Fellow, TERI.
While explaining the scenario, Johri said the resource allocation decisions should be made keeping in mind the economic impact and the cost-benefits of total sanitation. The project budget should consider socio-economic costs and benefits, including health treatment cost savings, health and productivity gains, water cost savings and the economic value of time saved due to easier access to toilets.
“The answer to India’s sanitation woes will not be easy and we have to undertake a multi-pronged and interdisciplinary approach to address the concerns of the varied socio-economic strata of the country,” Johri says.
TERI studies have identified and ranked eight different types of sanitation technologies and calculated the benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) values. The average cost across rural sites varied from Rs 11,000 to Rs 20,000 for technologies with a septic tank; Rs 11,000 to Rs 15,000 for technologies with a single pit system; Rs 17,000 to Rs 20,000 for a double pit. In comparison, in urban areas the cost varied from Rs 20,000 to Rs 35,000 for cistern-flush technologies. The cost depends on various factors and will change due to site, location and cost of local materials, Johri says.
The studies conducted by TERI do not restrict themselves to setting up of the infrastructure and the cost, but also highlights that raising awareness on hygiene and sanitation is an important aspect for the overall success of the project. Access to toilets is also an intersection of caste, class and gender prejudices, a social system ordered on who is let in, who must stay out, who can clean the toilets and who cannot. “In a country where a huge section of the rural community, especially the poor, is not keen to construct and use toilets, the mindsets have to be changed to achieve the goal of total sanitation,” Johri adds.
One of the ways to achieve this is the community approach to total sanitation (CATS). The programme is based on sustainable use of sanitation facilities instead of focusing solely on infrastructure. “Active participation of local leaders can help in bringing about the change. Their experience of working with community and ability to facilitate activities would help in achieving “open defecation-free villages. All the stakeholders need to work together with a missionary zeal to reduce open defaction in our country,” says Johri.
The approach is in line with Modi’s plans for inclusive growth while staking claim not only as an economic powerhouse, but building a robust and indigenous systems to help the masses keep pace with the Indian dream.