Social Entrepreneur Solving India's Sanitation Crisis

Guest Post by Dost_Mittar

A simple solution to a disgusting problem
"The toilet is a part of the history of human hygiene which is critical chapter in the growth of civilization."
[Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak]

Anyone who has seen the blockbuster film “Slumdog Millionaire” would remember one scene above all others. I am referring, of course, to the “potty scene” where the young Jamal is shown relieving himself in an open pit. The scene caused a lot of adverse reaction in India as unrepresentative of true India. But according to a joint study conducted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 665 million Indians, or nearly two-thirds of them defecate in the open. I am not sure if these 665 included people using indoor toilets without plumbing; if it did not, then the number of Indians defecating in an unhygienic manner is even greater.

I love traveling by train when I am in India and have many enchanting childhood memories of such travel. But one of the less enchanting memory is of seeing people relieving themselves in the open whenever the train passed some open areas in the mornings. Some of these people would stand up holding their pajamas or dhotis to protect their dignity at the sight of the approaching train; most would carry on without paying any attention to those seeing them perform one of their most private functions. I never thought of this as anything abnormal and it took a foreigner for me to realize how demeaning this scene was. That was when I read V.S. Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness”. Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian origin, was aghast at seeing such scenes when traveling through India for the first time. I realized then that what I had taken as something natural was somewhat unique to India and Indians. Whereas people in other undeveloped countries may be forced into defecating in the open, they won’t accept it as something normal as we do.

Another thing unique about India is the way we treat those who take care of our excrement. During my childhood in Lyalpur as well as the first decade of my stay in Delhi, our house and, indeed, the street on which we lived did not have indoor plumbing. A woman came to manually scrape our excrement with a pick-up and transfer it to a larger basket -tassla- which she carried outside on her head. Like everyone else, I also avoided her touch as if touching her would somehow make me touch the feces that she just cleaned and carried. She was not allowed to touch our water taps, we would pour water in a bucket reserved for this purpose while she stepped a couple of steps away from us. It never occurred to me that there was something wrong in my behaviour: But it did so to a Brahmin kid growing up in a village in Bihar. Bindeshwar Pathak, a six year old boy, wondered what would happen if he touched such a person. When he did, his mother was hugely upset with the sacrilege he had committed and made him swallow cow dung and urine and bathe in the water of the holy Ganga to purify him from his “polluting” activity. He realized that "If they (scavengers) continue to clean human excreta, they will not be accepted into society."

People who clean and carry human human waste, which we euphemistically call night soil, have been known by various names. We used to call them bhangi or bhangan. In military cantonments, they began to be called jemadar or jemadarni for some obscure reason. Gandhi called them harijan or children of god. But it was the British who coined a term for them for their census purposes which has become a standard expression in Indian English. That term is Scavenger. The dictionary meaning of scavenger is “an animal or other organism that feeds on dead organic matter” or “a person who searches through and collects items from discarded material”. In India, however, the word generally means the person who manually cleans toilets.

Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the first Indian who recognized the indignity of the job of a scavenger. As anyone who has seen the film “Gandhi” would know, he started the practice of cleaning after himself when he was in South Africa; not only that, the male chauvinist in him forced his wife to do the same, bringing tears to her eyes. Later on, when he started his Sabarmati Ashram, he made it a rule that all inmates of the Ashram would clean their own toilet.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak is a Gandhian. Gandhi lived among the “harijans” so that he could experience first hand the humiliating conditions under which they lived. Pathak did the same. He lived among scavengers for three years to be able to feel their pain. He realized that the only way to get rid of the unhygienic state of toilets and to improve the lot of the scavengers was to develop a low cost sanitary toilet which was affordable by ordinary households and, at the same time, eliminated the need for scavengers to carry human waste. He then founded a movement called “Sulabh International” and developed a simple, low-cost toilet which cost approximately Rs. 700 and could be installed anywhere, including villages without any plumbing. This toilet uses only 1.5 litre of water for flushing as against 10 litres by a conventional toilet. The toilet “system” consists of two pits: when the first one fills up, it is closed and the other one is used. The closed toilet dries up in two years when it is ready to be used as fertilizer and for conversion into biogas for heating, cooking, and generating electricity.

Sulabh international has succeeded in raising the percentage of rural population with access to a toilet from 27% to 59%. The movement has also installed 5500 public toilets in the cities and places of tourist attraction throughout the country. Anyone who has used public toilets in India knows how filthy and nauseating they are. Public toilets built and maintained by Sulabh charge a nominal amount for their use but they are much cleaner than other public toilets and a boon to visitors with a need to go. The system has since been exported to many developing countries of Asia and Africa. It has been recommended by the United Nations HABITAT and Centre for Human Settlements, as well as by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Sulabh International Social Service Organization has launched operations in Bhutan and Afghanistan. It has, together with UN-HABITAT, trained engineers, architects and others from 14 countries in Africa. It is planning to work in Ethiopia, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Madagascar, Dominican Republic, and Tajikistan.

The Sulabh system removes the need for scavenger; therefore, Pathak’s organization started training schools to prepare them for alternative jobs. These included a training school for women in Rajasthan to train them in tailoring, embroidery, food-processing and beauty treatments. Some of these women went to New York City to participate in a fashion show held at the U.N. headquarters to celebrate the International Year of Sanitation.

In recognition of his services for efficient water management, Dr. Pathak was awarded the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize. The award was created in 1990 to recognize achievements in water science, water management, water action or awareness building and carries a cash prize of $150,000. If India could produce another 100 Pathaks, it could really begin to shine.

Although the practice of manual scavenging became illegal in India in 1993, there are still 115,000 scavengers working in the country today.

Dost_Mittar, the author, is a Canadian of Indian origin. He is a retired policy analyst with the Canadian government living in Ottawa. He does consulting work, mostly with governments, if and when "I get an assignment without looking for it. My hobby is to get away from Canadian winters as much as possible".

Related Links:

WHO-UNICEF Sanitation Study in India

Sulabh Toilet Museum

Food, Clothing and Shelter in India and Pakistan

Do South Asian Slums Offer Hope?

Can Slumdog Success Help Poor Children?

Mumbai's Slumdog Millionaire

Pakistan's Total Sanitation Campaign

Caste System: India's Apartheid

No Toilet, No Bride

Poverty Tours in India, Brazil and South Africa

South Asia's War on Hunger Takes Back Seat

Bollywood and Hollywood Mix Up Combos

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Pakistani Children's Plight

Poverty in Pakistan


Riaz Haq said…
This is from CNN today:

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- Most Indian mothers want their daughters to marry decent men who make a good living. Now, in parts of rural India, women have a new -- and rather unusual -- demand for matrimony: a toilet.

"No toilet, no bride," has become a rallying cry for women raising a stink about the lack of a basic amenity.

They see it as a human rights issue, especially in villages where plumbing can be nonexistent.

It was that way in Sunariyan Kalan in the northern state of Haryana. Sumitra Rathi said village women had no choice but to relieve themselves without privacy.

They would go before sunrise or hold it in until darkness fell once again to avoid being seen. Or they would walk out to the fields and endure embarrassment. They don't want their daughters to face the same indignity.

"Many of them do make serious inquiries from the families of grooms about latrines," she said.

As a member of the local council, Rathi has helped build toilets in 250 houses in Sunariyan Kalan since 1996.

Still, about five dozen homes lack covered bathrooms.

The problem is so big in India that the country would need to construct 112,000 toilets every day if it wants to meet its sanitation goal by 2012, according to the Ministry of Rural Development.

Even as India emerges as a global economic power, millions of its citizens still live in poverty. The government estimates that less than 30 percent of villagers have access to latrines, which poses serious health risks and increases the threat of deadly diseases like typhoid and malaria.

To help overcome the enormity of the sanitation challenge, the government is offering incentives to encourage villagers to build bathrooms. The poorest

of the poor in Haryana stands to receive Rs. 2,200 ($48) for each toilet they install, said P.S. Yadav, a state coordinator for the sanitation campaign.

The incentives are especially attractive to women, for whom the problem transcends health issues.

Local women, often illiterate, have taken a keen interest in bathroom construction, said Roshni Devi, the council chief in Haryana's Kothal Khurd village.

And through it, they have gained a sense of self, making the lowly toilet seat feel more like a lofty throne.
Riaz Haq said…
Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan to champion sanitation campaign in India, reports The Guardian:

Sanitation and hygiene are sensitive and unpopular subjects, but funding them is essential to fighting disease, ensuring basic rights and meeting millennium development goals.

It is hardly the most glamorous role for Shah Rukh Khan, yet "the king of Bollywood" has agreed to lend his name to the cause of sanitation and hygiene, the laggards in the millennium development goals.

Basic sanitation, covering subjects such as toilets, latrines, handwashing and waste, is not an MDG in its own right, instead falling under MDG7 on ensuring environmental sustainability. But sanitation and hygiene have been the poor cousins in the global Wash (water, sanitation and hygiene) work and programmes, outfunded by as much as 13 to one, even though it could be argued that most water-related diseases are really sanitation-related diseases.

As the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in June, sanitation is a sensitive and unpopular subject, so it is unsurprising it fails to garner much public or official attention – although the UN declared access to water and sanitation a fundamental right in 2010 and there is a UN rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
The problem is stark. As many as 1.2 billion people practice what the UN politely describes as "open defecation". They go to the toilet behind bushes, in fields, in plastic bags or along railway tracks. The practice poses particular problems for women and girls, who can be subject to physical and verbal abuse or humiliation. Sexual harassment and rape are also a risk for women who wait until dark to relieve themselves.

There is a link between sanitation and girls' education as well. Separate toilets at school mean more girls are likely to attend in the first place, and more are likely to stay on after puberty to complete their education. The UN's Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), based in Geneva, suggests that some money from education budgets should go towards providing toilets for students and teachers, with separate facilities for girls, to maximise the impact of the increase in education spending.

Better sanitation would also save lives, as 1.6 million children die every year from diarrhoea, a disease that could be prevented with clean water and basic sanitation. The UN says improving the disposal of human waste can reduce illness due to diarrhoea by 34%. When combined with hand-washing, this impact can be doubled.

As Timeyin Uwejamomere wrote on the Poverty Matters blog this week, a lack of basic toilets and waste management is a severe public health hazard, especially in a dense urban environment where diseases like cholera can spread like wildfire. He noted that in sub-Saharan Africa more children die from diarrhoeal diseases caused by a lack of sanitation and safe water than they do from measles, HIV and Aids, and malaria combined.
In a sign that sanitation is receiving greater attention, the WSSCC is holding its first-ever global forum on sanitation and hygiene, starting on Sunday in Mumbai, bringing together activists, business leaders, health professionals and governmental officials. This follows a drive launched by the UN in June to accelerate progress towards the goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of the population without access to basic sanitation.

Indicative of the increasing focus on water, sanitation and hygiene, the UK's Department for International Development is increasing bilateral aid on the problem. Based on Guardian analysis, spending will go up to £113.8m by 2014-15 from £82.9m in 2010-11, a 32% rise. So hats off to Shah Rukh Khan for his willingness to sign on to the Wash cause.
Riaz Haq said…
Malnutrition in India is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a news report in The Guardian:

A report out today warns that even in a fast-growing economy like India, failure to invest in agriculture and support small farms has left nearly half the country's children malnourished, with one fifth of the one billion plus population going hungry.

ActionAid, which published the report ahead of next week's summit in New York to discuss progress on the millennium development goals, says hunger is costing the world's poorest nations £290bn a year – more than 10 times the estimated amount needed to meet the goal of halving global hunger by 2015.

India now has worse rates of malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa: 43.5% of children under five are underweight and India ranks below Sudan and Zimbabwe in the Global Hunger Index. Even without last year's disastrous monsoon and the ensuing drought and crop failures, hunger was on the increase.

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, protested, saying the court had crossed the line into policy-making and warning that distributing free food to the estimated 37% of the population living below the poverty line destroyed any incentives for farmers to produce. The court stood firm. It was an order, not a suggestion, the judges said.
The poker is glowing red hot in the flames of the burning wood. Suklal Hembrom holds a leaf against his stomach and warily eyes the older man sitting on the other side of the fire. Suddenly Thakur Das takes hold of the poker and lunges towards the boy's stomach.

Everyone in the village knows what should happen next. The child will scream loudly as the flesh begins to blister. Held down, he will writhe in agony. Again and again, the poker will jab at his belly. The more the child screams, the happier everyone will be, because the villagers of Mirgitand in India's Jharkhand state believe the only way they can "cure" the distended stomachs of their famished children is by branding them with pokers.

Das sees nothing wrong with the procedure. Nor does anyone in the village – most have scars of their own. Even though some children have died, the villagers continue because the alternative – providing enough nutritious food to sustain their children or paying for medical treatment – is simply not an option. In common with millions of others in the world's 11th largest economy, they face a daily battle to put even the most basic meal on the table.
Riaz Haq said…
Horrible #toilets. lack of #Hygiene, at #India’s #aerospace show in #Bangalore. #Modi #AeroIndia2017 … via @TOIOpinion... it didn’t occur to the organisers that these women would need access to clean toilets. There were just under a dozen toilets for women at the show, each afflicted with its own unique problem. Some had no water, toilet paper rolls or soaps; some had too much water on the floor, forcing the users to roll up their trousers or hitch up their sarees before entering, while some demanded a cross-country trek over unpaved ground, difficult to negotiate in heels.
One thing united them all: absolute lack of hygiene. For a show of this level, the organisers had hired local cleaning women to attend to the toilets, instead of professional housekeepers.
This makes a mockery of everything we claim and aspire for at so many levels. Let’s take each level one by one. We claim to be a leading power in Asia; our prime minister asserts that our time has come and the world must take notice; and he is exhorting global industry to come and ‘Make in India’. Yet, at the biggest showcase event, the infrastructure is so abysmal that foreign participants make sympathetic noises while putting India back in the third or the fourth world.

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