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Household Toilets and Sanitation: The Solution for Open-defecation Free?

The definition of sanitation would broadly include the following: facilities and provisions that ensure a hygienic environment in order to eliminate major diseases and health issues. This would entail the containment and treatment of human faeces as well as the management of waste and waste water. However, the overwhelming impression we got during our investigation into the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission sanitation scheme, particularly the construction of household toilets in Ranchi, was that the larger, more layered problem of sanitation had been reduced to the provision of individual household toilets. As a result, many crucial components were neglected.

There were many signs pointing us to this conclusion. One of them was the fact that the topic of insanitary toilets never came up, whether in our interactions with beneficiaries or the team working as the Project Monitoring Committee (PMC) for the SBM, essentially monitoring the process of providing toilets with the Ranchi Municipal Corporation (RMC). It seemed that mere access to toilets was sufficient; whether those toilets are sanitary or not did not matter. However, insanitary toilets are just as likely to raise sanitation problems especially for those who clean them. In this way, insanitary toilets perpetuate issues of caste-based manual scavenging. The conversion of insanitary toilets into proper toilets distinctly features in the SBM Guidelines, proving that on the ideation level at least, there was a clear understanding of the health and human rights issues stemming from insanitary toilets. Yet the silence on this topic spoke volumes on what was being done on-ground - absolutely nothing.

The very first toilet we came across during our visits to the slums in Ranchi was an insanitary toilet. It emitted a foul stench; the slum dweller that led us to it had warned us it would be dirty because she explained that it was an open toilet with no door, which community members, other than their extended family, also used often. There was on one end, a urinal which basically consisted of a hole leading to an outer mud lane and on the other end a pit hole. There were no drainage provisions. Right before taking us to the toilet, the slum dweller had requested one of the adolescent girls to quickly go fetch some water and clean it up. She explained that there was no water available readily and one had to fetch some from the hand pump. Sensing her embarrassment, I assured her that it would not be necessary as we would just take a quick look. The toilet was shared by 20-odd members of the extended family. When we enquired how they would manage to share one toilet amongst so many of them, she answered that you learn to adjust.

This made us think that perhaps the SBM scheme had not adequately taken into account the sizes of poor Indian households where, due to high flow of migration towards cities and lack of land, there is a trend observed of urban families increasingly choosing to live as joint families. We sensed in the slum dweller’s vague reply that the adjustment could involve certain members resorting to open defecation. There is much coverage about how open defecation prevails despite households owning toilets due to caste cultural preferences but this interaction indicated that there could be practical reasons for the continuance of this practice as well.

Proper sanitation wasn’t guaranteed even for those who were availing the scheme. As expanded in the blog covering the quality of toilets being built through the SBM, beneficiaries are left to build toilets on their own with no support or awareness given for the various technical factors that need to be factored in for safe and hygienic construction. It also covers how the state of sewage treatment is extremely poor. The scheme allowed people to build toilets but has failed to guarantee adequate sanitation.

Another prominent sign leading to our final conclusion was that there seemed to be no visible indication of any ongoing work towards constructing community or public toilets. The PMC staff informed us that there had been no case of community toilet construction in any of the wards they were monitoring. As for the construction of public toilets, this was precisely one of the suggestions a PMC member mentioned when we enquired about what requires more focus under SBM. He believed that the individual toilets component had been adequately dealt with and now attention needs to be directed towards public toilets giving the example of a locality where several school bus drivers congregated and had no place to relieve themselves, hence resorted to openly urinating in public.

Our conversation with a slum dweller served as additional proof for the need for public toilet facilities. She mentioned that during Christmas, there were events held on the vacant plot beside the slum. As there are no public toilets here, residents of the slum are either forced to relieve themselves in the open or walk back home. Moreover, outsiders who participate in these events have no place to go and resort to relieving themselves in the open, hence making the slum dwellers vulnerable to the hazards of poor sanitation.

By ignoring key components such as the construction of community and public toilets as well as by failing to provide proper technical support for the building of new toilets or converting insanitary toilets, even though more households than ever will be able to own individual toilets through the SBM, the real issues of poor sanitation have not been adequately dealt with.

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