The Toilet Test by Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam (October 20, 2014)

On the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, on October 2, 2019, nobody will defecate in the open anywhere in India. By then everyone of us will have a toilet to go to. This is the target of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that the Prime Minister launched earlier this month to mark the mahatma’s 145th birth anniversary.

By any reckoning this is an ambitious programme as only 33 percent of our rural households and 50 percent of urban ones have toilets today. The task may be daunting, but the need is pressing. Open defecation is the enemy number one of hygiene. Because of it water bodies are contaminated and vicious diseases like cholera, gastro-enteritis, bacillary dysentery, amoebic dysentery, mixed-etiology diarrhoeas and encephalitis are constant feature of our daily life.

Because of it a large number of Indians suffer from enteropathy, which permanently decreases the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. This stunts the growth of children and weakens the body. This also explains why our children and adults have less body weight than people in some backward countries who consume even less calories than us.

If we are able to achieve the target, our per capita annual income will grow by Rs 6,000 and there will be a saving of 6.4 percent of the GDP that is today taken up by medical expenses on diseases related to open defecation. This toilet test is a challenge to our national will and honour. Remember how the British Queen humiliated the whole country during her visit in 1997 when she chose to publicly talk about open defecation in the Indian capital?

To be fair to UPA, it had launched an equally ambitious Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Swachh Bharat is almost a carbon copy of its predecessor, which means that the troubles that afflicted Nirmal Bharat can harm Swachh Bharat also. One of them is that many people like to defecate in the open, even if they have toilet at home. Women who go outside their homes to relieve themselves risk snakebite and attack by rapists. Even then some of them prefer going out than using toilets.

The government has a programme of awareness creation regarding toilet use. Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, who specialise in these issues, say Indians don’t need just toilets, but they have also to be convinced about using it.

A major hindrance is corruption in toilet building. A recent report says that 43 percent of the toilets built by government in rural India either do not exist or are defunct. At one place, toilets “completed” by government did not have doors, windows or roofs. At some other places they collapsed within the year. This certainly is not how to pass our toilet test.


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