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Toilets, Toilets Everywhere: Plumbing The Depths Of India's School Sanitation Puzzle

19/10/2015 8:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Indian schoolchildren washing their hands and faces at the taps and sinks at their village school outside Bandhavgarh National Park

Some years ago, on an extremely hot day in June, I stepped into a middle school in Ratlam district, Madhya Pradesh. While almost every classroom was open, the toilet had a shiny lock dangling from the door. One teacher stammered out a reason: villagers often ended up using it if it was open and the lock ensured exclusive use by students. A child who wanted to use it had to take the key from a teacher and after using the facility, return it. However, this was not the whole story. The school did not have a dedicated toilet for teachers. Left with no option, they were using the students' toilet, and in the process made the facility exclusively theirs. As one local opined, this was expected from non-tribal teaching staff. Sharing toilets with local tribal children was anathema to their caste privileges. However, since the local population had little regard for using toilets, everyone was happy with this arrangement.

"The air is thick with evidence of data fudging, botched construction and ghost toilets."

Fast-forward to 2015, and toilets in schools are being dished out like paani puris at a busy market on a Sunday evening. Analysis of Swachh Vidyalaya campaign data reveals that in the 15 days between 27 July and 11 August, 2015, approximately 89,000 school toilets were constructed. Expectedly, the government has engaged in arthritis-inducing backslapping at having constructed 5933 school toilets per day. And predictably researchers and sanitation professionals are viewing these numbers with suspicion. The air is thick with evidence of data fudging, botched construction and ghost toilets. Unsurprisingly, all these have always been the bane of Government sanitation programmes. In 2012, Jairam Ramesh, former Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, had made an embarrassing admission to the Rajya Sabha during question hour. He said that states were deliberately fudging data on toilet construction to get Central Government funds released.

The problem of data discrepancy between state and Centre, and between different departments is a perennial issue. What matters is that children and especially girls do stay back in schools if there are usable toilets. But who is responsible for their usability through maintenance? A careful reading of the well-crafted Clean India: Clean Schools: A Handbook by Ministry of Human Resource Development gives us the much sought-after answer. It is mostly going to be the School Management Committees or SMCs.

"Toilets are just one piece of the school sanitation puzzle. The missing ones include transparent monitoring and capacitating SMCs [School Management Committees]."

An SMC consists of teachers, parents/guardians and community members. In the Ratlam middle school I started this article with, this committee would involve the teachers who locked toilets for their own use and uninterested members of the local community. Essentially the government now requires management of toilets to be handed over to approximately 1.2 million SMCs, many of whose presence and functionality is questionable. The SMCs are all required to prepare a three-year School Development Plan (SDP) and monitor its implementation. As per the PAISA 2014 survey of 15,206 schools, 39% did not have an SDP in place. By this sudden "build and transfer" mode of toilet construction, maintenance will be now shifted to a group, whose authority, capacities and immediate realities of gender, caste and culture are all a matter of concern. Low on resources and with little external monitoring, schools have resorted to all kinds of quick fixes to manage toilets. Worst of which is to make Dalit students clean them. The MHRD itself agrees in its Swachh Vidyalaya handbook that weak management contributes to unusable toilets. Somehow, in the debate on numbers, the fact that 418,000 toilets will now need to be brought under SDPs and then managed accordingly by SMCs has gone unnoticed. Rushed infrastructure doesn't go well with weak management systems. The Suvarna Jala programme in Karnataka proved this without doubt. Launched in 2007 under the erstwhile Bharat Nirman programme by the Government of Karnataka, this scheme tried to provide rooftop rainwater harvesting systems to 20,760 schools for increasing their drinking water security. Barely 10% or even less remain functional as of today.

"Opening up the Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan to honest feedback will encourage improvement. But if we bind programmes to hype, we will blind ourselves to their failures."

Success lies in monitoring, and doing that for 1.2 million schools proves harder in an opaque system. The Ministry of Human Resource Development itself accounts for its own progress. There is absolutely no space for independent scanning or monitoring. It would have been nice if details and photographs of 4.18 lakh toilets constructed in one year could be put up for public scrutiny. In today's digital India there is enough talent and examples that show this is possible. The Karnataka Learning Partnership is an exceptionally well-designed platform that analyses individual and aggregate school data, maps them and allows citizens to provide feedback from their school visits. Or take video volunteers for that matter. By encouraging volunteers in remote areas to make short videos on service delivery issues, it has set up an excellent example of citizen reporting. Opening up the Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan to honest feedback will encourage improvement. But if we bind programmes to hype, we will blind ourselves to their failures.

Toilets are just one piece of the school sanitation puzzle. The missing ones include transparent monitoring and capacitating SMCs. There is evidence that well functioning SMCs can improve school retention significantly. Hence getting these missing pieces in place is critical. It may seem too much. But in a country where we can construct 46 household toilets per minute and 5933 school toilets per day, this should be child's play.

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