The Toilet Conundrum

The Toilet Conundrum

As the car negotiated a narrow bend on the highway, the driver swerved hard. At the turn was a child, not older than six or seven years old, squatting on the tarmac at the side of the road. Next to him was an older child. As the car turned (and nearly missed them), they looked like deers caught in the headlight. But they did not flinch. A truck approaching from the opposite end must have done what we did– swerved and moved on. We were on State Highway 92, somewhere in Banda in Uttar Pradesh, traveling from Hamirpur to Chitrakoot.

A little ahead as we passed settlements, in various stages of transition from a hamlet to a town, women walked in files with cans in hand. In the dark, guided by and avoiding the lights of the highway traffic, they were heading towards isolated patches a little away from the road. The women and children were out at this time for one thing. With either no toilets at homes or their disuse, the open fields, roadsides, farms, forests, any isolated patch for that matter becomes the defecating ground. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the rechristened Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) on October 2, 2014 the target was to build 12 crore toilets by October 2019. On the last count (i.e. its second anniversary), only 2 crore toilets have been built. According to the official website, 55.40% of households in rural India have individual household toilets and 90,006 villages are now open defecation free. Under the Abhiyan, Uttar Pradesh had covered 44.64% rural households; Banda, the district we were crossing, had 56% coverage while the district we were going to, Chitrakoot, had a mere 26.6% coverage1.

The progress has been slow; back of the envelope calculations show that the rate at which toilets are being built the mission is likely to miss the target by decades. The point however is even if we reach the target (whenever that is), will it be successful. Since the state government gives Rs 12,000 for constructing toilets (half the amount is paid in advance, the other half after completion of work) it is easy to spot toilet stalls in the villages and towns. Brick and mortar enclosures, some completed and others in different stages of completion, with door and roof made of asbestos sheets are conspicuous outside homes or on the corner of roofs. 

But do people actually use the toilets. Has building toilets ensured that they use it too? 

The children squatting by the roadside reminded me of a conversation I had had earlier in the day with a few parents. It was at a primary school in a village in Hamirpur. Anyhow, the parents were furious at the teachers for keeping the toilet of the school locked. The parents came down like a ton of bricks on the teachers and said that because the toilet was locked at all times the students went in the open outside of the school premises and often wandered off. 

Though locked toilets remain a reality in almost all rural schools, the toilet we visited was open. At least, it was open on the day of our visit. The students informed that the toilet was opened everyday but because there was no running water the students preferred to go out. The toilet was clean on the day of our visit, but the teachers said that the safai karamchari wasn’t regular and so toilets had to be locked up if it was dirty. And also to keep animals from ambling in.   

Speaking of dirty toilets, the state of toilet in a girl’s residential school at Rayagada in Odisha, I visited a couple of years ago, was appalling, to say the least. My request to use the toilet was met by frenzied activity. A couple of older students were pulled out of their class, a few hushed instructions later they rushed towards the toilet complex (the areas had about 8 toilet stalls) with a bucket of water and a brush. Once fixed, I was shown the toilets. The state of the toilet was, at best, dilapidated. All the stalls were locked barring the one that has been ‘cleaned’. The roof was missing, the walls were mossy, with everything from creepers to fungi growing on it, and the floor was infested with huge spiders. The toilet had never been cleaned and was a storehouse of diseases. The residential school housed about 50 girl students; the condition of the toilets were telltale signs of its disuse and the girls going to the open field instead.  I was, myself, later advised to try the fields instead in these parts! 

Anyways, back to Hamirpur which, by the way, has 63.04% coverage in the rural areas. The parents insisted that it was entirely the teachers’ fault that the children did not use the toilet. I was then compelled to ask whether they had toilets at their homes, if the children were used to going in them and if it was only in the school that they were denied access to toilets. The answer was a muffled ‘No’. Some had toilets but they still went out, others were yet to make the toilets. (In some places toilets have been used as storehouse instead). With not much of role models at home, it is a tad unfair to blame teachers entirely and expect children to drop old habits and pick up new ones.  

At the school, most of the children, during the break headed towards a two feet wide alleyway between two blocks of the single-storeyed school. Closer to the passage one could smell urine. The 10 feet long alleyway, was open and ran up to the school boundary. There was a squatting pan at the far end. Most of the students preferred this. “But even if we go out, we always come back to our class,” said one of the students. 

It is evident that while shaking off old habits aren’t easy, the designs of toilets aren’t helping matters either. A teacher from the neighbouring boys’ primary school, pointing to a toilet outside a house, said “These toilets are so small and hot that it is impossible to expect anyone to sit inside. There is no running water or a proper sewerage system. People try for a couple of times and then revert to their old habits.”  

The next day, at Chakla village in Chitrakoot we were at a meeting of the Dalit Mahila Samiti members. On broaching the topic, all of them first said they had toilets at home and used it. Gradually, they opened up. “The toilets are not attached to a sewerage system, instead are attached to a septic tank. These septic tanks are just six feet deep. This is too small and will fill up in no time. They should be bigger,” said Sona.  

Chipping in, Geeta, Pradhan of Chakla village, says that there is no running water in these toilets. “When water is used in these septic tanks, they usually let off a lot of noxious gases which makes it impossible to sit in. In fact, some homes that have used these toilets have a strong, fetid smell around where the toilets are built.” 

Then there remains the question of who will clean these septic tanks? There is a concern that the government is promoting manual scavenging, while there is a huge movement to abolish it, in the rush to meet targets. This is tricky and shall be addressed later, perhaps in the next piece. 

Clearly, the government needs to make the toilets a more feasible and sustainable option. Instead of deploying drones to spot open defecators (a sort of naming and shaming) as is being recently proposed by the Yamunanagar district administration in Haryana2 , the state government should invest both money and ideas in addressing structural issues and concerns of the people. 


Written by: Savvy Soumya Misra, Research Coordinator- Development Practices, Oxfam India






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