Sunday 2 October 2011

54 percent of Indians practice Open Defecation

Written by Anil Singh

This particular distinction will make you disappointed, if you believe in “increasing prosperity in Liberalized India -- something which helps the country inch closer towards the coveted title of world super power”.

But if you hold the view that prosperity is coming to some in the billion plus nation, and eluding many, then the distinction becomes much understandable.

What is the recently acquired distinction?

The distinction is -- According to a UNICEF survey, 58% of the world's population practicing open defecation lives in India. China and Indonesia come a distant second by accounting for just 5% of the world numbers. Our neighbor Pakistan is down to third with 4.5%, tied with Ethiopia.

If one sees, what percentage of Indian population practices open defecation, then India is not doing any better. As per national population figures, 54% of India's population practices open defecation against China's 4%.

The national figures do push up numbers in smaller and poor countries. Like Indonesia has 26% of its population practicing open defecation as against its contribution of only 5% to the world population. The national figure stands at 60% for Ethiopia, 28% for Pakistan and 50% for Nepal.

Neighbouring Sri Lanka, in contrast, has only 1% of its citizens going to toilet in the open.

Thus even after much promoted view of the increasing prosperity of liberalized India benefiting every citizen; the nation doesn’t seem to translate that improvement into better sanitation. There is little denying the anguish given that the numbers do not tie up with the sanitation standards expected of improving financial economy as well as urbanizing India.

Now, there can be three reasons for India topping the global list in open defecation, they are – 1) the non-access to proper toilets, for real reasons 2) Lack of awareness among the masses regarding health importance of proper sanitation (which means defecating in proper toilets, with proper disposal of the human waste, so that water and soil are not polluted; and washing hands with soap or ash after defecation) and 3) The degree of privacy attached to the defecation process for each gender.

With the economic resources divided in the most inequitable manner in the country; it is not hard to understand that a sizeable proportion of Indians may be practicing open defecation for non-access to proper sanitation. For instance, a villager in a poor village in Orissa, who looks up to the Government to feed him and his family for 15 days a month, can’t be pressurized to make a proper toilet on the question of proper sanitation. This is equally true for a construction labor in a metropolitan, who himself lives, along with his family, in a roadside shanty.

Taking the above sizable population aside, another sizable population of India as well practices open defecation; but this time they do so for lack of awareness about proper sanitation. This group comprises of people, who although are capable of making proper toilets or have toilets, practice open defecation as they have their own reasons to support the benefits of open defecation. For instance, the farmers in the prosperous agricultural belts of Western Uttar Pradesh, Tarai regions of Uttarakhand, Ganga-yamuna Doab, defecate in their vegetable fields, believing that the human waste increases fertility of soil.

To cut long explanation short, people sometimes practice open defecation for varied reasons, viz. saving water, keeping home toilet tidy and so on.

The Indian Government is aware of this non-aware population that’s why it is keen to put the sanitation programme back on the centre-stage by sensitizing the population about public hygiene. For information, the Union rural development ministry along with states will organize a month-long campaign from October 2, 2011, or today, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, to create awareness for its flagship scheme of Total Sanitation Campaign.

As part of the awareness drive, the states have been asked to take active interest with chief secretaries issuing directions for the awareness drive up to the panchayat level. It may include household contact programme and gram sabha meetings to highlight the benefits of an environment free of open defecation. The panchayats would also train masons to construct toilets.

Not to say, if such population is properly made aware of the bad effects of open defecation, then they can indeed be made to practice proper sanitation.

The third reason for people practicing open defecation is the degree of privacy attached to the defecation process, for each gender. If you look at history of proper sanitation in India, from ancient times, then you will find that there’s seldom any provision of a toilet, not only inside houses; but also inside a village. The religious impurity attached to the defecation process has kept toilet out of the house plan; even when the bathroom was permissible. Hence tradition in India merely stopped at "prescribing the right hours for each gender to defecate". Assuming that a veil is important for a female than a male; the tradition strictly prescribed dark hours for women to defecate. Men on contrary were let loose of any such restriction; they were allowed to defecate any time of the day.

To summarize, rather than looking at sanitation from hygiene point of view, India from times immemorial looked at it from religious purity perspective; and prescribed rules that aided open defecation (open defecation means defecating under the sky).

These traditional views regarding defecation have long made Government policies struggle at the lowest level. If one looks at some of the successful proper sanitation drives among masses; then one finds that their success solely depended on how well, the flag bearers managed to break the purity related traditional views of the people. One such successful campaigns run in Maharashtra villages, was the “Hagandari Mukt Gram". One of the ploys used in this movement, was to encourage people not to marry their daughters in villages where people don't have proper toilets.

Hence not to say, there’s much to proper sanitation in India than just non-access to a proper toilet.

Let’s hope that the Government makes proper plans to tackle the lack of proper sanitation in the country, so that we don’t have to take the Open defecation trophy five years from on.

To make you Feel Good:

Although 25,000 Nirmal grams today, which are a result of ‘Nirmal Gram Abhiyan' of the Government is a tiny fraction of 6 Lakh villages in the country, but any positive must be hailed. These Nirmal grams are in Maharashtra and Haryana. Maharashtra is a success of social movements while Haryana an example of determined state government action.

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