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India's sanitation race has a lot going for it
There are a lot of euphemisms for using the toilet, since most people are generally embarrassed about their faeces and urine. So we have - latrine, loo, bathroom, privy, and now the more politically correct word, restroom. Some of them you wince about, some are easy to tolerate. But the one, which is the most delightful, is the one in Odia. It's called disha maidan – loosely translated to “the direction of the fields”. A very polite way of saying you're off to the far off open area with your can of water to relieve yourself. One possible reason is the obvious taboo with bodily functions as all human beings have, and no direct water connections into the first set of toilets, which only the rich, the highborn could afford, and the lowborn, the poor would clean. With the class barriers and other hygiene issues, it could be the reason why the toilets were usually located far away from the residence. Those little dark pits were scary places to get into. Sanitation has oft been a complicated subject to handle. Reports suggest that according to the 2011 census, out of 25 crore households in India around 46% have sanitation facility within their premises. The lack of sanitation has been the root cause, for malnutrition, and for the fact that many girls drop out of schools because the toilets are unusable. In the recent budget, The new Indian finance minister Mr. Arun Jaitley allocated 40 billion rupees, and promised total sanitation in every single household by 2019. On the face of it, it looks like a good and sound plan, and a very ambitious and politically correct one to embark upon for a new government. But, it begs the very important question - Will merely building a toilet next to a house solve all the problems? Is it for the public common good, or for the private interest of the recipient of the toilet? Or would it end up being a mere metric of "x toilets have been successfully fitted across y cities in 5 years"?A recent article on Bloomberg stated that the free toilets race is not working. “Not working” seems like a case of clinging on to short-term statistics one month after the policy was announced, and painting a very dismal picture of what can and should be achieved, given it’s a five year plan. But there are other things to be thought of.First and foremost, as far as education is concerned, the argument in the aforementioned article rings true. People tend to do things what they've always been conditioned to do, and it gets very hard to change habits, attitudes, ideas, ideals. With the excruciating class barriers already prevalent in India, it is very difficult to make people think differently unless it is in the long run over few generations; it would have to be slow and organic. It would possibly be a mix of Information, education, and more importantly, communication. The campaign that AWASH, an NGO in Trichy, which aimed to achieve the education towards sanitation and was very successful.[caption id="attachment_4411" align="aligncenter" width="473"] A public campaign by AWASH to educate people on the need for better sanitation[/caption]But there are also more important things to consider. There are the logistics; a new toilet doesn't necessarily mean that it would be a clean, well-handled, well-maintained toilet. This is a huge problem even in well-located urban toilets, because often there is no water. It’s not often about having a loo, it’s about being able to flush it effectively, and have proper ventilation and lighting inside them. It’s often a nightmare to even use a toilet. Guardian, our field partner MFI working in Tamil Nadu, who specializes in loans for clean water and sanitation, ensures that all the places where they lend for the toilets have a reliable connection for continuous supply of water, which seems to be a more definitive approach. According to their website, in 2013, they’ve provided loans for ~25,000 toilets, at price points ranging from ~INR 9,000-11,000, and all are being used.Which brings us to the most important aspect, the sociological one. Paying for something automatically induces a sense of pride and ownership. Anything that comes free becomes easy, dispensable. When people realise the importance of toilets and pay for it themselves, they feel that they’ve moved up a class, and have possibly become empowered and taken to urban ways. They immediately feel the advantages on the quality of their lifestyles, as witnessed in our impact story below.The secondary effect is of course that the entire exercise becomes community-driven movement in the locality, because if one person gets one, they encourage their neighbours and friends to go the same way, and not towards the fields. Hence, the way forward would be to ensure that the rural people desire clean water and sanitation, instead of just handing them something for free and asking them to go figure why it’s important.It’s a long winding road to perfection, but Guardian/Milaap and many other organisations have clearly demonstrated that this model slowly but surely, works.