Can we fight the crisis of sanitation with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

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The last few months have repeatedly featured celebrities and business people and politicians with brooms in hand, cleaning a road or a sidewalk. These photo ops have been the major victory of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) that was started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi by cleaning a road near Rajghat in New Delhi. The Campaign aims to clean up more than 4000 towns and build 12 million toilets this year. Its vision is of a ‘clean India’ by 2 October 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Poor sanitation in India has been a cause for concern since before independence. Mahatma Gandhi, as pointed out by The Economist, had said that good sanitation was more important than independence. Though the new Prime Minister should be credited for bringing the issue of sanitation to debate, the magnitude of the problem requires more than that. Consider this: of the 1 billion people in the world who lack access to a toilet, India accounts for 600 million. And though a major one, open defecation is only part of the problem. Lack of drainage systems is equally hazardous.

Arun Jaitley, while presenting his first budget in the parliament, set the goal of ending the practice of defecating in open by 2019. Building toilets and ending open defecation will be of immense importance,since poor sanitation is intricately linked to malnutrition and stunted growth, and safety of women. But it will be a tough act to pull off on the government’s part. As of yet, more than a 120 million households lack toilet. 70 percent of rural and 13 percent of urban population don’t have access to one. This results into encephalitis, diarrhoea and poor immunity levels. India, not to anyone’s surprise then, tops the chart of malnutrition in South Asian countries. So what is causing this huge mess?

In the reports made by the Community Correspondents of Video Volunteers, we clearly see that rural India lacks usable, working toilets Sometimes because of the lack of a sewer drains, sometimes because of infrastructural costs or many times out of inexplicable ignorance, the authorities have failed to build operational toilets, often in places that also lack primary health clinics. Not only we are allowing for the diseases to spread, we are also shockingly unprepared for the health consequences.

Community Correspondent Anita Bharti from Uttar Pradesh, who recently reported that there isn’t even a single toilet in the village of Kasidaha, echoes these very problems. “Women have to venture out of the home in the middle of the night sometimes,” she says. Uttar Pradesh, it should be mentioned, was where two women were left hanging from a tree after being raped and murdered. Victims of the infamous Badaun case were attacked while they were going to the field, which is the open toilet of the neighbourhood.  The state of UP is also a high scorer on malnutrition and stunted growth charts.

A prime constituency of Uttar Pradesh that emanates embarrassment with unsanitary conditions is Varanasi. In this context, the miasmic city of Varanasi is not just important because the Prime Minister himself represents it in the parliament, but also because it had managed to incense even Mohandas K Gandhi. In 1927, Mother India, a book written by Katheriene Mayo portrayed the city (then called Benaras) in such light that Gandhi condemned the portrayal in a written statement. “All of them,” Mayo wrote, “are walking menageries of intestinal parasites, which inevitably tell when some infection, such as pneumonia or influenza (quite common then), comes along.” Mayo’s reader would have agreed with Gandhi that sanitation was a more urgent issue than independence.

Now, after nearly 70 years since Independence, Varanasi is only slightly better and that slightness is negated by population boom. Widespread and regular defecating in open areas, which is depressingly common in Varanasi, is a public health hazard.  The Prime Minister likes to prioritise toilets over temples in his speeches, but his constituency doesn’t even pretend to.

A recent study by Dean Spears, an economist at the Princeton University, shows that in villages that have more toilets, 6-year-olds are much more likely to recognise letters and simple numbers. This again, is reflected in the literacy rates of Uttar Pradesh, which is ranked at 29th in India.

However you put it, poor sanitation is making things worse for the citizens and the country. The Finance Minister and the Prime Minister should be applauded to at least bring this issue to front, because apparently no one wants to talk about it. This is a topic of National Un-interest — no politician campaigns around it, and the public conscience is ruffled only by infrequent international reports. Even the philanthropists aren’t easily excited with making things cleaner.

Another thing about sanitation that no one wants to talk about is how intricately it is tangled with the issue of casteism. The lack of sanitation or the need for adequate sanitation cannot be separated from the lives of those involved in the sanitation work: most of whom (if not all) are Dalits. If the lives of those suffering from lack of sanitation are appalling, think of the lives of the sanitation workers. Campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan cannot afford to miss this crucial link between sanitation and caste.

Seen through the video reports filed by Community Correspondents like Anita Bharti in Uttar Pradesh, the situation demands more than media attention and public service announcements, it demands government action. Many facets of poor Standard of Living indicators point back to the issue of sanitation. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is the right diagnosis of the problem, but more importantly, the cure has to start now. But this is a job not for the government alone. The persistence of this problem has been denied for decades by the citizenry alike. For decades, the denial and disregard for hygiene has multiplied the problem by a magnitude. Along with the government’s plan, a change in the mindset is required. Awareness workshops,Training and seminars must be started in rural and urban areas.

A recent paper written by a group of health experts from the London School of Hygiene, WHO, UNICEF, U.N. Population Fund and WaterAid, said that in the new post-2015 Development Goals, maternal and newborn health must be linked with access to water, sanitation and hygiene in order to be successful. Going by that, Clean India Campaign is only the first step in the right direction.

 

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