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The New Straits Times, Monday, 29 March 2010
Herculean task for India's sanitation sector
Mahendra Ved - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

IN the early years after India's independence, a minister visiting Europe was quoted in a local newspaper as saying "the toilets here are so clean, I could sleep there".
Real or apocryphal, the story underscores an Indian's preoccupation with a place to ease himself in privacy and comfort.

Why am I talking about it six decades later? Because for the 638 million who do it in the open, this remains a quest.

It is becoming an issue for those who find it shameful to talk of a "resurgent" India. The contrast is too glaring to be ignored.

The problem is not civilisational. Remains of the Indus Valley and successive eras indicate that people in those times did have toilets and covered drainage systems -- unlike many parts of contemporary India.

Unfortunately, in the maze of centuries that followed, these sparkling examples of ancient civilisation have been lost. It is difficult to say when the rot set in and why Indians, infamously, defecate or urinate in the open.
Not a nice subject to talk about; and simply talking does not help. Not in India's capital city that is spending millions preparing for the Commonwealth Games.

Such a situation is unacceptable in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who had spoken about responsible disposal of human waste and, indeed, cleaned toilets a century ago.

It is a huge problem with a bearing on health, education and much else.

Ahead of World Water Day last week, some non-governmental organisations (NGO) got people to queue before public toilets in Delhi and 10 other states to highlight their serious shortage.

"In India, 60 per cent of the population defecate in the open. This is not by choice or habit but because of lack of access to toilets. In urban India, 18 per cent of the people practise open defecation and in rural areas, 69 per cent," said Indira Khurana of WaterAid India.

Globally, 1.1 billion people practise open defecation. Organising the World's Longest Toilet Queue is a global mobilisation campaign to demand action from local, national and international political leaders.

The queue was for pushing politicians to prioritise water and sanitation by committing aid and resources at the first high-level meeting on water and sanitation next month in Washington.

A Planning Commission of India study on school dropouts in Punjab state pointed to an absence of toilets in schools as prompting students, especially girls, to quit.

Lack of toilets is raising a stink in Bihar as it tries hard to shake off polio, a disease that spreads through the faecal-oral route.

"My village has a population of 9,000 and we have no toilets. I have written to the district administration several times to provide funds for the construction of toilets but have not received any reply," lamented Meena Devi, panchayat (village council) head of Kaidli in Saharsa district.

The Indian government allotted a whopping Rs140 billion (RM10.2 billion) under the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) for the construction of toilets across the country in 2008 with eradicating open defecation high on its agenda. But the money's disbursement, actual building of toilets and their maintenance is a long way off.

The problem has attracted the attention of hi-tech institutions.

Prof Vinod Tare from the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, is pursuing the Gandhian concept of turning human waste into high-quality compost -- a good economic proposition in a country that is short on fertilisers.

Since a toilet must have a sewer network, Tare and his colleagues have designed what they call a "zero discharge toilet".

"This is the toilet of the future. With no sewer lines in many areas and those in place overflowing by now, such a technology is the answer. The civic bodies will have to realise that," says Sanjay Mehrotra, also of IIT, Kanpur.

From Bihar to Bangkok, Oliver Cumming and his team of policy analysts from WaterAid, London, have been doing a case study on how public finance can be used effectively and efficiently in India, Tanzania and Thailand.

Sanitation is also a matter of habit that needs correcting with awareness and even penalty.

Delhi is creating public awareness against "Mr Thu-Thu Kumar" (who spits), "Mr Su-Su Kumar" (who pees in public) and "Mr Kuda Kumar" (the litterbug).

They are characters of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi's (MCD) advertisement campaign to raise sanitation awareness. The idea is to embarrass offenders and to raise awareness against spitting, urinating and littering in public places.

The other idea is to make the toilet no longer a yuk-yuk thing. Delhi is set to have toilet blocks that will smell of flowers -- and of coffee, yes, a coffee house-toilet combo. A thousand such combos are planned; so let a thousand toilets bloom.

Official estimates say the ratio of toilets to people is 1:20. But in many places the ratio is 1:50 and in some 1:500.

According to Khurana, if the Indian government were to meet its target of making India open-defecation free by March 31, 2012, it has to construct 54 toilets a minute non-stop until that time.

The task cannot obviously be completed by the government alone.

The Indian toilet story is not all dismal. Indeed, it cannot be complete without the role of Sulabh, and its creator Bindeshwari Pathak. He is closest to Malaysia's own "toilet king" Robert Lau Hoi Chew.

In caste-ridden India, this rebellious soul champions the cause of toilet cleaners and scavengers. Making 7,500 public toilets in India, he has liberated and rehabilitated over 60,000 people who used to carry human excreta as head loads. He has made 240 towns scavenging-free.

No wonder he was awarded the Padma Bhushan (1991) and International St Francis Prize (by Pope John Paul II in 1992).

Pathak was awarded the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize, the most prestigious award for outstanding achievement in water-related activities that has become akin to a Nobel Prize on environmental issues.

On his card are Sulabh toilets in Madagascar, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Laos.

"Sanitation is humanity's most urgent and critical crisis of the times. It is not yet unsolvable, but poses a huge challenge. It will require massive, dedicated and selfless labour to achieve the goal," said Pathak.



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