Can India leave behind the open defecation?

Open defecation has shamed me time and again. The memory on the night we were proceeding toward our village while returning from Gaya after once-in-life shradh performed for all dead in the family in Gaya just haunts me. It was a September evening getting dark. As soon as the driver would put on the headlight for safety, hoards and hoards of women and girls of the villages, defecating on the sides of the road would stand up in hurry. I do also remember the shameful situation when I visited Khajuraho, a heritage tourist destination. I was out for my morning walk towards the village. I could proceed further out of the shame.
One Anjaali Puri has provided a report on the new initiatives to stop open defecation in Outlook’s latest edition. It is freshening effort. And the minister leads the way.

The rural development ministry with its Total Sanitation Campaign is out to solve the problem. Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh with the first hand experience of the shame for the society has promised, rashly many would say, to make every Indian village free of “open defecation” by 2012. Singh has earned more middle-class approval for declaring that only contestants with toilets in their homes should be allowed to stand for gram panchayat elections. “A toilet or the lack of it,” he says, “is the indicator of a country’s health, not the GDP or the Sensex.” This is not about toilet manners, but about 30 million people in rural areas suffering from sanitation-related diseases, and four to five lakh children dying of diarrhoea every year. And daughters and daughters-in-law being assaulted in open fields. “Izzat aur maryada ka sawal hai,” the minister exhorts their unconvinced men folk, who rather like the rush of fresh morning air on their posteriors. Meanwhile, his publicity machine comes up with advertisements showing grooms shopping for brides, and turning down those who don’t have toilets in their homes

Under the Nirmal Gram Puruskar, the government is giving cash award to “open defecation-free” zones, ranging from Rs 2 lakh for the smallest panchayat to Rs 50 lakh for the biggest district. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam handed out awards to 760 panchayats and nine blocks that qualified in 2006.

The number of awardees is expected to multiply manifold next year. In 2007, Midnapore or South Tripura is a front-runner to become India’s first open defecation-free district. The inspections have been farmed out to social research organisations and market research outfits like ORG-Marg, are rigorous.

And the list of award winning states presents some surprises. Maharashtra tops. Tamil Nadu closely follows West Bengal closely. Thirteen other states have opened their accounts, including “bimarus” like Bihar and UP. The missing include IT hub Karnataka and rich Haryana and Punjab. And the minister Singh fumes, “See, 70 per cent of rural homes in some states have TVs but not even 40 per cent have toilets.”

The success of an experiment in Midnapore in the ’90s, involving UNICEF, the Ramakrishna Mission and voluntary groups, contributed to a more on-the-ground, campaign-oriented approach to rural sanitation. Research for the government by ad agency Ogilvy and Mather showed that appeals to local pride, women’s personal dignity and health and hygiene would work best.

Diarrhoea among tribals made health arguments work in Tripura, whereas in an industrialised state like Maharashtra appeals to pride and development work best. “We asked an elderly lady in Midnapore why she installed a toilet, and the answer was, to stop her daughter-in-law from going out so often, and avoiding housework.”
As claimed, with the new strategies, rural sanitation coverage has increased from 22 per cent in 2001 (as recorded by the census) to about 38 per cent in 2006. But even if all the people for whom the crores of new toilets have been built are using them, that still leaves about 500 million rural Indians out there squatting, everyday.

And that is not all. Urban areas are even the worse. Even after my numerous letters to Noida authority, the huge plot in front of our houses meant for some big hospital is a nuisance for the residents. And if you travel by ordinary class in rail, you just can’t see outside in the early morning as the train approaches some small or big urban areas.

It is certainly the lack of facilities, but it also is because of the rural mentality to a certain extent. But the change is coming fast.

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