Of toilets, sanitation and nudges

By Jayamala Subramaniam, CEO, Arghyam

Knowledge and expertise from both the public and private sectors is needed to solve the sanitation problem

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Women feel the need for toilets the most, and are, therefore, are the biggest beneficiaries when they are constructed. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Toilets, and the lack of enough of them, are a recurrent topic on prime time news these days. It would have been difficult to imagine such a situation just a couple of years back.

We need to remember that our real goal is not toilets, but sanitation. The former is easier to understand. The latter is much more than just toilets. Sanitation, by the textbook, means the process of keeping people and places free from dirt and germs and thereby, infection and disease. This is achieved by the safe handling and disposing of human excreta, garbage and other waste. Other requirements include personal hygiene (including hand-washing and menstrual hygiene), clean food and water, storm water management, and more. So toilets are only one step in the long road to complete sanitation. However, evidence suggests that it is one of the most important steps.

Theoretically, one can safely handle human excreta without building toilets – in some cases, all it takes is a hole in the ground, properly covered, to safely dispose of human waste. Conversely, building toilets does not guarantee sanitation; in fact perverse results can happen with inappropriate technology and construction. Case in point being Kerala, where the high groundwater table has resulted in toilet pits contaminating the groundwater. As a nation, we have survived for centuries without toilets. While at work in the fields, agricultural workers do not have access to toilets and this is unlikely to change. They will, therefore, continue to spend their workday in no-toilet zones. The goal of the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, the flagship programme in rural sanitation, on which Rs.6,140.2 crore had been spent through 2011, is an “open defecation-free society”. Getting there quickly will be very difficult from where we stand today.

Read the entire article (originally published on Livemint) here. 

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