Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

LAST AU­GUST 15, speak­ing from the ram­parts of the Red Fort, the prime min­is­ter made a very im­por­tant an­nounce­ment—his gov­ern­ment would en­sure “there is no school in In­dia with­out sep­a­rate toi­lets for boys and girls” by the next In­de­pen­dence Day. Ex­actly one year later, the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­source De­vel­op­ment has an­nounced that this tar­get has been met and that some 417,000 toi­lets have been built in 261,000 schools.

This is no mean achieve­ment, es­pe­cially given the dire ur­gency and im­por­tance of this task.The fact is that lack of san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties is a rea­son for high dropout rates in schools—par­tic­u­larly of girls. It is also linked to higher dis­ease bur­den. It is a ba­sic hu­man need— as ba­sic as eat­ing or breath­ing—and needs to be se­cured for hu­man dig­nity. Most crit­i­cally, toi­let sin schools are po­ten­tial game-c hangers in so­ci­ety: quite sim­ply, chil­dren learn the value of per­sonal hy­giene and bring it home.

School toi­lets are har­bin­gers of tomorrow’s In­dia. So, it must be asked if the tar­get has really been met or is this just about num­bers.To know this, the re­lated ques­tion is: are the toi­lets that have been built at this break­neck speed in use? Do they have run­ning wa­ter; is there pro­vi­sion for reg­u­lar clean­ing and main­te­nance? Only then can we boast that the task is done.

The gov­ern­ment, while claim­ing 100 per cent suc­cess, says that it has re­paired some 151,000 toi­lets and built the rest anew.On its web­site, it also ex­plains that if any­body would like to vol­un­teer to build toi­lets in schools, then it can pro­vide de­signs.The cost of each toi­let ranges from C80,000 to C1,30,000. In ad­di­tion, it says that a hand pump—in cases where there is no piped wa­ter—and wa­ter tank will be needed, cost­ing C80,000, and an­other C20,000 per year will be re­quired for main­te­nance.The orig­i­nal plan was that cor­po­rate In­dia would scale new heights and build th­ese toi­lets. That has not hap­pened. Pri­vate com­pa­nies have been miserly and pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings are strug­gling to meet their school toi­let com­mit­ments.

Funds how­ever have not been the con­straint. The last gov­ern­ment’s Sarva Shik­sha Ab­hiyan—a scheme to en­force the right to univer­sal pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion—in­cludes sub­stan­tial money for civil works to build school in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing toi­lets.In Fe­bru­ary this year, the gov­ern­ment ex­tended the pro­vi­sion to in­clude re­con­struc­tion of dys­func­tional toi­lets as well. It is also to the credit of the gov­ern­ment that it did not lose sight of the im­por­tance of this task.

The Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice, it is said, mon­i­tored week-by-week progress. The dead­line was clearly on ev­ery­body’s mind. My col­leagues have cal­cu­lated that some 2,850 toi­lets were built each month be­tween Au­gust 2014 and March 2015.As the dead­line came closer, con­struc­tion moved to fever­ish pace. Be­tween April and Au­gust this year, some 100,000 toi­lets were built each month. This, in it­self, is not bad.It could be that the gov­ern­ment ramped up its ca­pac­ity; it wanted to en­sure it reached its goal.

But it is ex­actly be­cause of all this that we must ask again: are the toi­lets func­tional? Frankly, there is no in­for­ma­tion about this in any re­port of the gov­ern­ment.But me­dia re­portage from across the coun­try sug­gests there is still a long way to go be­fore we can talk about to­tal san­i­ta­tion, even in schools. This is not sur­pris­ing. There is enough data and ex­pe­ri­ence to tell us that just in­stalling the hard­ware is not suf­fi­cient to en­sure a toi­let’s func­tion­al­ity.The lack of wa­ter is a ma­jor con­cern. In­dia’s wa­ter pro­gramme has seen that even as set­tle­ments are ‘reached’ with sup­ply, through hand pumps or wells, the num­ber of un­reached set­tle­ments goes up. The wa­ter dries up, hand pumps get bro­ken and pipes col­lapse.

Same is the case with san­i­ta­tion—toi­lets are built, but ei­ther never used or be­come dys­func­tional. More im­por­tantly, there is the mat­ter of where the waste goes and how it is treated. So, build­ing a re­cep­ta­cle to col­lect hu­man exc­reta is only a small part of ac- cess to san­i­ta­tion.

We know, how­ever, that school toi­lets are an eas­ier part of the san­i­ta­tion chal­lenge. Schools have space for build­ing toi­lets; own­er­ship and con­trol is clear and main­te­nance can be en­sured. How­ever, we still need a plan to make sure it hap­pens. Un­less this is done, the min­istry can­not say that it has met its tar­get.In fact, what is hap­pen­ing could have the re­verse ef­fect. In this past year, toi­lets have been built us­ing funds al­lo­cated to the Sarva Shik­sha Ab­hiyan.But in the Union Bud­get 2015, money for this scheme has been cut. Now the ques­tion is: how do schools plan to main­tain th­ese fa­cil­i­ties; who will hold them ac­count­able and how will this be re­ported?

The fear I have is now that the task is shown as com­pleted—it is checked and off the agenda—there will be lit­tle at­ten­tion to the cru­cial de­tail that is ev­ery­thing be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure—not just a toi­let but a work­ing toi­let, which is used and cleaned. This is what to­tal san­i­ta­tion is about. This is the least we can pro­vide to our chil­dren.

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