World Toilet Day, which falls on 19th November, is a day to reiterate our efforts to ensure safe toilets for each and every individual. The day underscores the significance and need of toilets for the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation globally. Not having a toilet is one of the world’s greatest challenges to human health. Urgent action is required if we’re to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Water and sanitation for all by 2030. Covid pandemic has further intensified the need to ensure hygienic environments and safe toilets for all.
Ever since the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on 2nd October 2014, over 10 crore toilets have been built in the last six years, representing a staggering 38 toilets built per minute, in rural areas alone. While questions remain on the true extent of coverage or usage, there is no doubt that the country has seen an unprecedented rise in access to individual household toilets. Today, many more are aware of sanitation than ever before and those for whom access was the main barrier, have seen an increase in the usage of sanitation facilities.
Aligning to the goal of Swachh Bharat, AROH Foundation, in association with HDFC Bank’s CSR initiatives of PARIVARTAN and School Sanitation Project, has been working extensively to provide safe water and sanitation in villages spread over the three states of Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya and Uttar Pradesh, to bring a positive transformation in the lives of the lakhs of inhabitants in these villages. The Foundation has provided nearly 5000 individual household toilets, and over 500 School Sanitation Units along with access and regular supply of water for proper usage and maintenance.
It is gratifying to hear the words of Ms Amita, Principal of Junior School, Indumai, “The presence of merely a toilet in the school has ensured healthy environment and restated the fact that Hygiene Education is an ‘approach to life’ rather than an academic subject that can be taught with a focus on theory and written examinations. HDFC Bank and AROH Foundation have sorted a very critical issue of the students and teachers, because of which retention was also difficult, but now after the toilet in the school, the attendance has improved tremendously by around 50%. Children are not making petty excuses to not come or drop out from schools and their learning outcome has also improved. Do you know the feeling of relief? We feel it daily now!”
It was not just about constructing the structures of defecation, but a larger emphasis was laid on ensuring usage of toilets through awareness building programs in schools, communities, and individual households. The programme attempted a number of different strategies for awareness and behavior change, the overemphasis on messages about women’s safety and honor were also highlighted as the core message of safe sanitation for its long term benefits to health and safety, especially for women and children.
12-year-old Ria Kumari often complained of stomach ache and went home early from school and even would not want to go to school the next day. And she was not the only one. The cause of her illness was not food poisoning or some virus. It stemmed from the lack of a toilet in her school. “When we had to relieve ourselves, we wouldn’t go because we were afraid that the boys would follow us,” said Ria. “They would sneak there and try to watch us. Our stomachs would start hurting because we were afraid to go to relieve ourselves. Then we wouldn’t feel well so we would take the rest of the day off from school.” This agony caused to girls due to open defecation was shared by girls across all villages.
Not just the students but female teachers, 58 girls students and even female principal were also going through same turmoil, as The Principal, Ms Amita says, “Even as principal/teachers, we didn’t drink water during the day because we didn’t want to need the toilet,” she says with an apologetic smile. Female students face difficulty paying attention during class because they were dehydrated. Fewer older girls attended school, which attributed to the fact that they had no place in school to change their sanitary napkins. Not just the girls, open defecation was also not healthy for 64 male students and male teachers of the school.
Today, Word Toilet Day is a day of celebration for more than 20,000 students in the 500 schools where water and sanitation have been ensured by the project. It is a day to celebrate the good health and hygiene practices adopted by these schools and students which have reduced absenteeism and improved the health and wellness of children.
We must understand that declaring India ‘Open Defecation Free’ doesn’t mean sanitation goals have been met. Although a whooping Rs 12,300 crore package has been allocated for Swachh Bharat Mission in this year’s annual budget, we must not forget the fact that around 40 per cent of people having toilets in their houses are still not using them for various reasons.
A large percentage of toilets is not in use because of lack of access to water. It is not just about building toilets, but about a holistic approach for ‘managing sanitation’ till the last mile. While the Swachh Bharat Mission has made rapid strides in terms of making toilets more inclusive and pervasive throughout the country, entrenched socioeconomic factors may be limiting the access to and use of sound sanitation practices in Indian villages.
Amongst the many other challenges, Coronavirus pandemic has come as a rude shock revealing the widespread disregard for hygiene and cleanliness practices prevalent in India. World Toilet Day 2020 must be considered as a clarion call to promote and ensure safe sustainable sanitation for the entire nation. Let’s hope we can put our best foot forward for the sake of humanity and make ‘Safe and Sustainable Sanitation for All’ our national priority.”