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Change in behaviour key to Swachh Bharat

Despite promising beginnings, we may miss the larger sanitation objective by just constructing toilets. World Toilet Day should act as a reminder to reorient strategies to ensure a cleaner and healthier environment.  Some good news to cheer about, most schools in India today have a toilet, thanks to a dedicated cell in the Prime Minister's Office that tracked day-to-day progress to achieve this. Cases of changing social behaviour too are coming to the fore. 

For instance, more and more women in rural India are refusing to marry into households that do not have a toilet, like in April this year when a woman in Kanpur rejected the groom for this reason. In states such as Gujarat and Haryana, one can contest for panchayat elections only if the candidate has a functioning toilet at home.

But these bright sparks could get flushed away in the way we manage our larger sanitation paradigm. In the Union Budget 2015-16, the Union government reduced its direct funding for sanitation by Rs 3,500 crores, hoping to recover it from the Swachh Bharat Cess. But going forward, such reductions would not help to strategically deal with the larger issue, since the government would have to invest higher amounts in treating illnesses emanating from poor sanitation. 

Every year, 1,88,000 children under five die due to diarrhoea - the highest in the world. Due to frequent diarrhoea episodes, 43% of India's children suffer from malnutrition. According to a study, poor sanitation costs the country Rs 2.44 trillion annually. Our objective should be to increase funding to also cover regular maintenance. 

At the current rate of construction, the government will miss the deadline of a toilet in every home in India by 2019. According to estimates, it will take Varanasi 32 more years to build the 2.3 million toilets as planned by the government. Amethi will have a toilet in every home only in 2045, and Uttar Pradesh chief minister will need 66 more years to be able to provide toilets to all his constituents. 

Only one in two people use a toilet in India, which ranks among the lowest levels globally. So, open defecation free India still remains a distant dream. Further, crimes against women and children who use open toilets have been increasing. While we make large investments for clean drinking water in urban areas, we do not pay as much attention to lack of sanitation and its consequences. Billions of gallons of water are used to take our waste to life-giving rivers. Many rivers have turned into dirty sewers - like Mithi in Mumbai, the Cooum and Adyar in Chennai, while natural drainage systems like lakes and tanks have been lost to construction.

Sewage load

Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) alone cannot solve the problem of waste - no CETP in the country is able to bear the increasing sewage load. Worse, at many places such as in Malyana, Himachal Pradesh, untreated sewage water of the STP is spreading diseases in the area. We need to invest far more in decentralised sewerage systems, models that do not need to use water to carry sewage to the treatment plants, or try out those that make sewage a part of our nutrient cycle, as it has been done through vacuum toilets in Germany or algal treatment of waste.

Community toilets in rural areas have failed for a number of reasons. Behavioural change apart, there is either no water, or, inadequate funds for their upkeep and hygiene. Microfinance has helped millions of poor rural households to build a toilet. But even here there is a catch - most banks give a loan for toilet construction only if the beneficiary owns the land. We would need to recalibrate our strategies to achieve the objectives of the Swachh Bharat Mission. We must correctly price water for urban users so that it takes care of the costs of disposing waste. 

Importantly, it must humanise the poor and positively regulate the informal sector that takes care of sanitation. It must inculcate sanitation awareness not only at school level, but also ensure that corporate support is not limited to only funding the pipes. Providing toilets to poor people must be linked to providing water and access to drainage systems.

Women and children remain the most vulnerable, when it comes to accessing toilets. It's time to give dignity to them by providing sanitation access.

Cherian Thomas
CEO & National Director
World Vision India

This article was originally published in Deccan Herald on 7th December, 2016