Every morning Mamata didi (I call her didi), who washes dishes at my place, picks up a canister of water and heads to a nearby meadow to attend nature’s call. No, no, I am not reciting any story but, this is a stark truth that she told me a few days back. Out of oddity, I further asked her as to why does she defecate in the open? To which she giggled and humbly replied that she does not have a toilet at her house. It was eccentric for me as she has been dwelling and working in India’s capital for over fifteen years now, but still does not have a toilet in her house. This is just one story of the Indian postcard as millions still defecate in the open everyday.
Today, as India is celebrating its 66th Independence Day, it is very unfortunate that the rapidly-modernising India still remains home to the world’s largest number of population where open defecation is practiced.
A report by the WHO and the UNICEF that showed India in a poor light says that India has
a shocking number of 58% of all people who defecate in the open. China and Indonesia share the second place with just 5% of their population not having toilets. Pakistan and Ethiopia are third with 4.5% such people.
Adding to the shame, in a stark statement, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh recently described the Indian Railways as “the world’s biggest open toilet”.
“We are the world’s capital for open defecations. 60 percent of all open defecations in the world are in India. This is a matter of great shame,” he added.
A government panel report mentions that human waste from open-discharge toilets used by passengers is damaging railway tracks as the PH value found in human urine and excreta is leading to corrosion of tracks.
No matter whether you travel by roads or railways, it can be easily witnessed that India has indeed become an open defecating ground. Are we heading towards a future where we will sink under our own poop?
It makes me giggle and at the same time feel awful whenever I see a modest foreigner travelling either by road or railways and gazing at the scruffy roads or railway tracks which have become open defecating ground with human faeces all over and happily presuming it to be part of ‘Incredible India’.
But, the question arises as to why do people relieve their innards in the open in India? Is this practice of pooping in the open a fixed behaviour pattern of certain communities? Or do people in India in general lack sanitation awareness?
Many steps have been taken in this direction to keep a check on this practice; e.g. the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has increased the amount of money to be spent for household toilets in rural areas, introduction of eco-friendly toilets developed by DRDO in most of the villages and launching of schemes like ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’ (NBA) or Total Sanitation Campaign. But, it is important to realise that this alone will in no way turn out to be a magic bullet in solving the problem. The problem is much graver.
It has been observed that people change their habits for some time of not defecating in the open, but then again return to the same old practice. But why?
A major reason could be that most of them don’t have access to a ‘Sulabh Shauchalaya’ (public convenience) close to their place and hence they have to walk everyday a few miles to attend to nature’s call. Yes, it happens only in India where you can easily find a shopping mall, but no place to pee. It’s not just the situation in rural India; don’t you and I encounter the same problem while travelling on highways as one can hardly find any public convenience and we usually end up looking out for a gas station to unburden ourselves.
Another important factor is that the practice of open defecation is a fixed behaviour pattern of certain communities as in many Indian villages people still outrightly reject the idea of using a toilet. Even talking about human excreta, faeces etc. is considered obnoxious and taboo. Mordant, isn’t it?
People in rural areas still prefer open fields to defecate as they think that it keeps the lands fertile. But, when this waste flows down to rivers and lakes during the time of rains, the urban India receives the same contaminated water. Now, this contaminated water spreads various water borne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. As per an estimate, the ‘evil’ diarrhoea is the cause of death of at least 800 children below the age of five in our country every year.
Further, defecating places serve as ‘breeding grounds’ for harmful insects raising concerns for rural children as these places are playgrounds for them and hence, increasing the chances of direct contact.
It has also been observed that for girls studying in rural areas, the crisis is all the more as many drop out of school midway once they reach the age of puberty because of inadequate lavatories.
It has to be understood that sanitation and the sense of cleanliness will improve only when rural and urban both India are provided proper education in this respect. For this, any government led programme should not just aim at providing more number of toilets, but at the same time try to educate, motivate and communicate to people to change their behaviour with regard to open defecation. Ultimately, it is mindset and the habits that need to be changed.
On a positive front, Sikkim has become the first ‘Nirmal Rajya’, i.e.100 percent open defecation-free state in the country with Kerala and Himachal Pradesh following the same footsteps.
So, this Independence Day, let us be free from the shackles of our ‘old and burdened’ habits and make India a heaven where every child and adult is ‘healthy’.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)