Critique's Zone

The Clean India Initiative: The Role of the Toilet

What is the first thought that strikes your mind when you hear the word ‘toilet’ ?

It definitely is a weird question to start off an article with. Just to jog your memory, this post starts off with the first of the objectives listed in my earlier post, The Clean India Initiative: A Success or A Failure? and examines how the toilet played a role reducing open defecation and improving sanitation.

I guess in the orthodox sense, the mental image would be of an urinal used to either urinate or defecate. But the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has changed the contours of the word. To a person coming across the news of the Indian government prioritising building of toilets and touting it as a political achievement must either seem amusing or baffling!

The Indian populace though considers it to be one of the successes of the government. Announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the announcement of Prime Minister Modi to construct toilets for girls in schools gave birth to a movement that under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that concentrated on building toilets in low-income rural and urban households and make villages and towns defecation free.

While the government can be criticised for its haphazard implementation of its various policies, for instance, the famed mechanical lion of ‘Make in India’ failed to roar or the ill thought implementation of the demonetisation, the Clean India Initiative has been a success. The toilet was the symbol that defined its success.

A toilet?

A symbol of success?

How did the toilet go from being an utility to a symbol of success and development ?

They are genuine questions that can pop-up in the mind of anyone. To grasp the importance of what ‘the toilet’ meant to different strata of society, we need to understand what were the grievances of each section of society on the topic of public hygiene and sanitation.

The lack of urinals at public places was a major source of embarrassment and a long nursed grievance. With a paucity of urinals, people urinated by the walls on the road side. The stench emanating from these areas not only put people off the place, but aided in transforming those areas into garbage dumps.

Its contribution to society was two-fold. One, it was fertile breeding ground for many disease carrying pathogens. This helped in propagation of diseases like malaria, typhoid and dengue across the cities. Two, it presented and promoted a negative image of the country to visiting tourists when they saw people urinating, spitting and littering by the roadside and vandalising public spaces.

While that was the practical side of the issue, it also propagated certain lifestyle stereotypes among people. People used to refrain from drinking water if they had to travel long distances or had to spend long hours outdoors. The situation also helped in cementing the idea of the government being an incompetent organisation. The government did not build any new toilets at public places for the convenience and safety of the common populace. Nor could they properly run the existing public urinals.

It was considered to be an adventure to pee in the public urinals. A person needed to brave the filth and the stench adorning the structure and deal with the crumbling and dilapidated infrastructure just to urinate. And if a person needed to defecate, it was easier to do by the bushes near a railway track than in the public restroom.

If this was the state of affairs in urban areas, imagine how deplorable would the condition was in the rural centres. The movie ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha‘ starring Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar gave a glimpse into this world. The tribulations faced by Bhumi’s character and the women of the village due to the lack of toilets in their households.

Women had to attend to their bodily functions of urinating and defecating the early hours of dawn outside the residential limits in places that offer very little privacy. They could only perform this activity again only after dusk. While not only does it raise logical and logistical questions, it has a detrimental effect on women’s health.

The health does take a hit. The other thing that takes a hit the modesty and privacy of the women. Relieving themselves of the bodily wastes through urination and excretion in secluded places makes them vulnerable to sexual predators, molesters and eve teasers.

The infamous Badaun rape case comes to the fore where two young were found hanging from a tree after they were allegedly snatched from the fields where they had gone to relieve themselves as there were no lavatories in the village.

Another aspect that comes to the fore is the superstition and reluctance of the villagers and the family to have a toilet built. In the movie, the process of a getting a toilet built for his wife (Bhumi’s character) by Akshay’s character becomes a huge challenge. While the movie is an endorsement for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (The Clean India Initiative) and the government scheme of providing financial assistance to low income urban and rural families, it also is a commentary on social realities of the country.

To combat this situation, the Indian government launched a program with a two-pronged strategy. A massive awareness and publicity blitz was launched by the government and celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Anushka Sharma were roped in to spread the message to the citizens.

On the implementation side of the issue, the government to get the bureaucracy to move its wheels and get the work done the targets were set declared during the Budget session and were a part of the Finance Bill. This was done to ensure a measure of accountability from the often sluggish bureaucracy. The strategy of the government turned out to be a success.

This is reflected in the media reports carried out by local media publications and international organisations. According statistics provided by the government till February 2019, 9.16 crore toilets have been built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and 5.5 lakh (550 million) villages have declared them open defecation free.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a brain child of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, through concerted efforts put into building toilets and changing mindsets has gotten the people of India to use toilets and dangers of defecating in public has turned out to be a successful policy of the government.

While the government can take credit for the success of building toilets and takinging the sanitation coverage of the country above 90% , the disposal of the waste generated by people while using the toilets still remains an issue of concern.

(More about in Part 3 of The Clean India series on Manual Scavenging)

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