Quick action to tackle sanitation

Date: 22nd July 2013

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By Indira Khurana in New Delhi,

28 July will mark the third anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s explicitly recognised ‘Right to Water and Sanitation’, which acknowledges safe drinking water and sanitation as essential to the realisation of human rights. This resolution called upon both states and international organisations to provide the necessary financial, human and technological resources, so that developing countries could move towards a situation where all citizens have affordable access to clean drinking water and sanitation. India is one of the signatories of the UN resolution and there is a need to move towards making this a legal right and developing a time bound plan for realisation of this right. Moreover, the resolution makes it binding for all of us engaged in the sanitation sector to do our bit.

A legal right to sanitation or any other right is a long drawn process and several questions need to be addressed along the way. Should changes be brought about by constitutional amendment or an act passed by the Parliament? Should the right include only access to affordable and usable toilets or to sanitation in its wider perspective? What will be the minimum acceptable demands under the rights? How will the right to sanitation for rural and urban populations be defined? What will be the liability of local government institutions like the panchayats, who are responsible for delivering the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in rural areas and are they financially and technically capable to deliver this right in the first place? What should be the responsibilities of the right holders and most important of all, what happens to persons without access to basic sanitation facilities like urinals before a consensus on the matter is reached? How can public consciousness on the issue be ignited and services be provided?

Increasing evidence indicates that the impact of no or poor sanitation is much more serious than earlier perceived. In addition to mortality, India lost 2, 12,000 of its children under five to diarrhoea in 2010. Waterborne infections are a serious factor behind prevailing under-nutrition and stunting in India. Under-nutrition is the outcome of insufficient food intake and repeated infectious diseases and results from lack of food or failure of the body to absorb or assimilate nutrients properly. Stunting is defined as low height for an age group and is an indicator for measuring under-nutrition. Girls’ education takes a hit. Girls and women, face sexual harassment. The economic, social and health costs are thus astronomical. And over riding all this is the daily affront to dignity that one faces on
defecating in the open.

The high economic costs were revealed in a field visit to villages in Jharkhand. These were villages where the Global Sanitation Fund has committed to support the state government in its implementation of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Katia village in Ruddhiapanchayatof Chandil block, Seraikella district, has a population of 1,022, largely belonging to the Santhali tribe. There is not a single toilet in the village. The toilets provided in the anganwadi and the school lie defunct for almost 7-8 years. During our visit, the villagers had gathered together in a common space and the meeting began with a traditional Chhau dance. Interestingly, Seraikella district is one of the three areas from where this tribal martial dance originated. Then began the process of drawing the attention of the community towards the issue of sanitation – or the lack of it. The villagers were asked to draw a map of their village defining the boundaries, village lanes, areas of habitation, water sources, institutional buildings such as the school and anganwadi, and places they cherished, such as the temple. Different coloured chalk was used for this.

They were then asked to identify spaces which were dirty and where it was difficult to stand even for a couple of minutes, which is how long it took for them to identify these as areas where they defecated in the open. Within no time, the map was dotted with yellow areas, identifying the spaces where they defecated in the open. The generous sprinkling proved an eye-opener for them. From there on, it was easy for them to identify the route by which faecal matter ended their food and water chain. A commitment to change the scenario with the promised support of GSF and its partners was a logical and foregone conclusion. Within the next couple of months all our efforts will be made to support these villagers make toilets using local wisdom and resources. The village meeting ended with another performance of Chhau, aptly depicting the victory of good over evil. Coming back to the economic losses, the Indian Parliament was informed in December 2012 that the economic losses in Jharkhand due to lack of toilets amounted to a staggering Rs 1,200 crore annually. But the villagers, when asked about the estimated loss arrived at an annual figure of Rs 2.5 lakh or Rs 1,000 per person. It was ascribed to sickness and absenteeism from labour work. ‘We take loans to tide over the emergency,’ informed one villager. Rued another, ‘Sometimes we even have to sell our land. Yet the person does not survive.’

The author works with NRMC India, the implementing arm of the Global Sanitation Fund, India.

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