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Why are toilets low priority in India?

February 29, 2012 17:21 IST

No amount of stink, or raising one to correct it, would work quick enough to change the order of things. Toilets, you see, are our least priority, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Anyone who had travelled by trains in India does not have to be told of the toilet-effect. It is the stench that permeates the coaches, the mess within the toilets which are places with a hole in the floor over which a commode or a squat pan is placed. It lacks three elements: a proper design, enough water to service it, and proper user-habits.

Now, it transpires, these toilets on Indian Railway coaches also do damage to the rail tracks and they very coaches on which they are housed as a passenger amenity. The human excrement falls on to the tracks and corrodes the tracks. They splatter the coaches' undercarriages and maintenance crews shy away from servicing those parts.

Thus, they make train travel unsafe. A committee of rail safety headed by nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar has suggested that railways opt for a new design which contains the human waste from falling on the tracks and messing with the undercarriages. If done, they would also save the expense of having to replace the tracks and rolling stocks to sustain safety.

It is not that the railways are unaware of the issues of toilets, their designs and even implications for, curiously -- one did not expect it then, and one does not believe it now -- during Lalu Yadav's tenure as railway minister, it was decided to install eco-toilets which made for better hygiene. A large proportion of as many as 9,000 trains were to have been fitted by now. They only sat on their haunches.

That is quite a stink.

Had this been done, Kakodkar and his team would have only asked for speeding up their installation, not for change in design. Apparently nothing visible has been done on it since Lalu Yadav's announcement in 2008. One of the proposed designs then was from railways' own research designs and standards organisation which has excreta being collected in a tank, where it is broken down in about a week's time by enzymes. The liquid part is treated with chlorine prior to being let out.

The other was a zero-discharge design from IIT-Kanpur which recycles fluids for flushing and does not deposit the muck on the tracks.

But a word about how the damage occurs to the tracks and the undercarriages: Kakodkar was quoted in the Indian Express, the only newspaper to take it seriously enough, was that the pH content of the human excrement reduced the life span of the 1.1 lakh km long tracks. Likewise, the splatter affected some 43,000 coaches that now ply. pH is a measure in chemistry. If it is less than 7, it is acidic. If more than 7, it indicates alkalinity. Either can impinge on the tracks, clips and liners which hold them together for a train to safely pass over.

We do not know what priority the cash-strapped railways would now assign this issue. It has not been an issue so far for the only design changes we see now, at least in the air-conditioned coaches is the provision of a hand-held shower and sometimes a mug chained to the wall to prevent theft, some dispensers without soap in them. During the train's journey, the toilets are not cleaned by staff stationed at various junctions. Water is sometimes missing.

What about the conditions in unreserved coaches which are overcrowded unlike the reserved ones? One can well imagine it and not be wrong. Many a train in India take over 24 hours to complete a journey and surely, even the unwashed majority who use open spaces for their nature's call would find it choking but are uncomplaining. For, in India, toilets are a very low priority.

That explains why we have more cell phones in India than toilets as pointed out by UNICEF and why Indian women want cell phones and not toilets, as Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has been saying. Probably, because, like the ones on the Indian Railways, both on trains and at stations, the toilets don't seem to work.  That is why half the population are without access to toilets; in plain numbers, shockingly, over half a billion.

The government has been making efforts of a token kind: provide Rs 3,000 per toilet if you don't have one but want to when it actually costs thrice that and not all Indian are in the affording class here. And those who have had a toilet installed have also converted it for different uses like storage of agricultural implements, a storeroom for the home and in some rare cases in Marathwada, into places of worship.

Along with absence of toilets, the other is the issue of water and good hand-washing practices. The India Human Development Report 2011 was blunt with the obvious: "Open defecation is a serious threat to health and nutritional status, in addition to the safety of women and girls." And, "The situation is more dismal in rural areas where more than 75 per cent households do not have toilet facilities. Even if a single household is defecating in the open, that household can be a source of diarrhoea for all households," in the proximity of the village it said.

Toilet training an entire nation is stupendous where resources, including the all-critical water to ensure even good hand-cleaning practices to avoid contamination, are hard to come by. Maharashtra, said to be one of the better states with the highest number of villages which abandoned open defecation is still a modest achievement. The best-achiever state has only 9,082 villages out of 27,928 gram panchayats which use toilets, not open spaces.

Obviously, there are worse states. Karnataka's former advocate general had to file a PIL in the high court asking for an end to scavenging where one is employed to clean up and carry away another's discharge. Despite a law, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act 1993, that was in place he had to ask for its enforcement. But then, it is on paper for even urban centres have no drains, people use sceptic tanks to collect the human waste which in turn is again manually cleaned.

Even, as in Maharashtra, good intentions have not met with appropriate support from those who stand to benefit. Majority of toilets those built within the homes or as an adjunct to it in the villages with government aid were either converted into spare storage areas for keeping farm implements or the overload from tiny homes. It happened in Latur earthquake-hit areas as it did in other places where subsidies in crores of rupees were doled out to encourage toilets to end open defecation.

It just seems that we have a long way to go though no one is asking for toilets smelling of lavender. In Mumbai, women who have a high rate of urinary tract infection would be happy with mere clean ones. No amount of stink, or raising one to correct it, would work quick enough to change the order of things.

Why, you can even unknowing tread upon it on an Indian street. And fear it happening again.

Toilets, you see, are our least priority.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar