Soaring childhood death toll spurs India's sanitation blitz

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 August, 2006, 12:00am

Despite India's hype about becoming a superpower, not much has changed in some departments. More than 40 years since V.S. Naipaul offended Indian sensibilities when he wrote about the subcontinent's unsavoury sanitation in An Area of Darkness, millions of Indians still lack a toilet at home.

But, backed by a budget this year of US$160 million - up from US$32 million in 2003-2004 - one government official is on a crusade to improve access to conveniences for the nation's millions of impoverished villagers. Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is using every trick in the book - bullying, cajoling, embarrassing - to get villagers to build toilets.

Mr Singh's efforts are part of the Rural Sanitation Programme, a project spurred on by the deaths each year from diarrhoea of 600,000 children under the age of five. About 30 million people in rural areas suffer from sanitation-related diseases and some families suffer from dysentery all year. The programme was launched in 1999, but has gained pace in recent years.

Mr Singh's officials roam the countryside to see which designated villages have fulfilled their promise to build toilets with the subsidy provided by his ministry. Villages where conveniences have been built are rewarded and feted.

In some areas, Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam hands out cash prizes to villages with toilets. But local pride spurs people into action.

'It's the media attention that gets people excited. When they see the panch (village council head) going to a city to get an award and the picture is in the papers, that motivates them,' said Bindeshwar Pathak, who runs Sulabh International, a private organisation dedicated to building public toilets in urban India. The advertising campaign devised by Mr Singh's publicity department is also creative. Advertisements show grooms rejecting brides who do not have toilets in their homes. Mr Singh has also said that candidates standing for elections to village councils must be able to prove they have a lavatory at home, or risk disqualification.

India's reluctance to build conveniences seems ingrained, with surveys in Tamil Nadu showing that more than 40 per cent of homes have televisions, but 14 per cent have toilets. In Punjab, 70 per cent of rural homes have a TV, but not even 40 per cent have toilets.

This fact prompts some Indians to dismiss all the talk of India's status as an economic superpower as laughable. 'Let's sort out people's most basic needs for food and toilets before we start talking big,' said New Delhi-based television producer Akash Litt. India's first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said: 'The day everyone of us gets a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of progress.'

That is still a long way to go. But if Mr Singh continues to measure his life in the number of toilets he can get built, there is hope.

Social workers involved in sanitation projects say that the push to introduce modern thinking to the nation will be slow.

'There is a certain discomfort about having the toilet inside the house, near the kitchen,' said Kuldip Atwal, who works in villages in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. Even more bizarre is that apparently some men consider it 'unmanly' to do their business at home. It is more 'macho' to wade into the fields.

This mentality explains the inexplicable feature unearthed by sanitation workers in Punjab - homes where there is a toilet but the family use it only during emergencies such as a bout of gastro-enteritis. Otherwise, it is kept under lock and key, like the family silver.

Mr Atwal says that, for women, going into the fields is a psychological trauma. 'They can't go alone when it's dark, they have to take someone with them,' he said.

Another fear is that men could be prowling nearby, knowing that women will be alone. This is another aspect that Mr Singh has highlighted to convince villagers. 'If you send your wives and daughters out into the fields, you don't know who is out there, waiting to assault them,' he warned men.

Daljit Basra, a farmer's wife in Khanna village, in Punjab, says that having a community toilet near her home has transformed her life.

'It's just a few feet from my house,' she said. 'I used to have to walk a long way to find a place where no one could see me. It meant getting up early to avoid people. Now there's no rush in the mornings.'

It was not always thus. At about 2,000BC, at the height of the Indus Valley civilisation, ancient cities such as Harappa had public sewage systems. Even ordinary Indians had toilets in their homes, archaeologists say.

Somewhere along the way, the need for toilets ceased to be a prerequisite of a decent life. That lapse is being made good by Mr Singh's loo-building frenzy. The Total Sanitation Campaign has built 20 million household toilets since 1999. Government figures show that rural sanitation coverage has increased from 22 per cent in 2001 to 38 per cent in 2006.

It means, however, that about 500 million rural Indians are still squatting out in the open every day.