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Flushed: 5 Toilet Myths in India

04/02/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Toilets for sale in Jaisalmer.

Toilets are definitely trending in India. Our mornings either begin with a full-page advertisement for Swachh Bharat in the newspaper or exhortations on radio and television. The logo of the Swachh Bharat Mission has become ubiquitous. Toilet searches are trending on search engines, peaking in November 2014.

One interpretation of this is a new-found official and public interest in sanitation. Sanitation has garnered more column inches and minutes on television than India's mission to Mars, both in the Indian and international media. However, many writers proffer silver bullets that seem commonsensical, but have been tried, tested and discarded. Here we try to dispel five myths that are currently sneaking into policy and practice.

1. Myth: A toilet for each household will eliminate open defecation

If there is one thing to be learnt from decades of failed sanitation programmes, it is that toilets do not stop people from defecating in the open. You can get toilets to your people but that doesn't guarantee they will be used. The preference for construction appears to drive sanitation programmes because it is where money is made. The sarpanch, village secretary, junior engineer, contractor and beneficiary all make money off the hardware and spurious construction material. Estimates from the ground are that of the Rs 12,000 now being paid as subsidy, about two-thirds are siphoned off, leaving Rs 4,000 for the poor toilet. Piecemeal sanitation programmes ensure other essential services that can sustain toilet usage such as water supply and promoting hygiene behaviour change get short-shrift. A recent study shows that in households with toilets, 40% of people continue defecating in the open.

2. Myth: Toilets will reduce incidence of rape and violence against women

The deaths of two Dalit sisters who were found hanging from a tree in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, in 2014 brought to light hard realities of rural life. But before the police investigation was complete sanitation experts proclaimed the culprit wasthe lack of toilets. Recent investigations by the CBI concluded that the girls were not raped or murdered, as had been believed, and that they committed suicide. This has still not changed minds in the international and national media as well among sanitation experts who continue to dwell on how more toilets could help prevent rapes in India. A police officer even declared that 400 women in a year could have "escaped rape" in Bihar had they just had a toilet to access. This kind of thinking is not doing women any favours since it helps shift scrutiny away from the misogyny embedded in our law and order system. A lack of sanitation may contribute to violence against women, but other factors such as caste, religion, the daily trudge to fetch water and fuel wood, commuting to and from work and, most of all, just being born a girl are as important. By blaming rapes on missing toilets, the emphasis shifted to superficial developmental solutions and an NGO immediately rushed in to make hundreds of toilets in Badaun. If the solution was so simple, it would have prevented subsequent rapes in the area.

3. Myth: When every house has a toilet, manual scavenging will be eradicated

Manual scavenging is an appalling and outdated system of collecting and disposing of excreta. Even though a law outlawing the practice was passed more than 20 years ago, it continues. Manual scavenging happens because people have toilets and use them! Since these toilets are not connected to a pit or a sewage network, excreta needs to be collected and disposed of daily. However, sanitation programmes proclaim pour-flush toilets will eliminate this inhuman practice. If anything, it will only alter the practice. Instead of emptying toilets daily, manual scavengers will end up cleaning out pit toilets and septic tanks periodically. Given India's caste system, it is unlikely that upper caste households will condescend to clean their pits or septic tanks.

4. Myth: Sanitation is a technofix

Build a toilet that works, then people will use it. This has been the mantra that has guided government sanitation programmes in India since the 1950s. This had established an engineering-centric approach, in that it is run entirely by engineers. There is nothing wrong with that, except that they are trained to understand pipes, pumps and plants, and not necessarily the people for whom they provide services. Also, most engineers in government departments are men, while women are the demographic that most support the building of toilets. Male engineers tend to focus more on technical accuracy than on women's (and other users') need for design that caters to their privacy and menstrual hygiene management needs. Here, we must also point out that three decades of focus on technical accuracy has not given us much to cheer about either. Most toilets are unusable because they have serious technical errors. The angle of the toilet pan is not steep enough, or the pipe that connects the pan to the pit is not sloped properly, or the pit collapses on its own weight. So the shame is not in the fact that a country that can build the cheapest Mars orbiter can't get its people to use toilets. The shame is in the fact that we can't even build our toilets properly. Clean India needs not only well constructed toilets but also well consulted ones. We are perhaps closer to Mars than these two goals.

5. Myth: More budgetary provisions will solve the problem

If the idea is to throw money, we are totally on track. If we are trying to solve the problem, then we may be setting ourselves up for failure. Apparently, US$3 billion has been spent since 1986 to bring toilets to people. Now, the current government plans to spend 10 times that amount in the coming five years. While we laud the government for making such financial commitments, we would like to squeeze in a few questions. First, is the money going to be invested in addressing the bottlenecks as addressed above? Will the focus be on behaviour change, hygiene awareness, developing a better pool of trained field-level masons, engineers and community mobilisers? Will there be rigorous monitoring of usage, improved subsidy targeting, etc? Unfortunately, it seems that most of this money will be routed as direct subsidies for constructing 100 million toilets, while only 8% of the budget will be spent on awareness building and behaviour change. While we agree that higher subsidies are needed for better toilet construction, we also would like to point out that making a toilet that works and then getting the recipient to use it, is a different ball game altogether. It's time we put the horse before the cart.

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