Quest for a clean India: where do we stand?

Pic courtesy: Arushi Sharma

In a country where there are more mobile users than toilet users, and whose record on sanitation is perhaps the poorest in the world, with more Indians defecating in the open than anywhere else in the world, two important initiatives were embarked upon last year under the leadership of our honourable Prime Minister: Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) for urban and rural areas and Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya (SBSV) for clean schools.

The main objectives of SBM are ‘promoting cleanliness, hygiene and eliminating open defecation in rural India’ and ‘to accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas to achieve the vision of Swachh Bharat by 2nd October 2019’. SBSV on the other hand seeks to ‘ensure that every school in India has a set of functioning and well maintained water, sanitation and hygiene facilities’.

Rural sanitation programmes are not new to us, having first been launched as early as 1954. However, the 1981 census recorded that only 1% of rural population was covered by sanitation. Since then a number of government initiated rural sanitation programmes have been launched: Central Rural Sanitation Programme (CRSP) in 1986, Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in 2012 and now Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2014.

In the case of schools, water and sanitation has featured prominently in every Government of India initiated programme on school education be it DPEP or SSA, with safe drinking water being acknowledged as a right of every child. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009, which is a legally enforceable rights framework, became operational on April 1, 2010. The RTE Act 2009 also upholds every child’s right to barrier free access, separate toilets for boys and girls, safe and adequate drinking water facility.

Despite the flurry of government initiatives over the last sixty years, why do we still lag behind in our sanitation status? And what about the status of safe potable water and clean toilets in schools? Let us start by looking at where we currently stand.

The Census 2011 reported that about 69% of rural households still do not have toilets within the household, while NSSO in December 2013, reported that 59.4 per cent of the rural population resorted to open defecation. There also seems to be a huge gap between existence of toilets in households and its usage, as evidenced in SQUAT report, 2014 released by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics – RICE: ‘40% of households with working latrines have at least one member who defecates in the open and more than half the people who have government latrines don’t use them. Half of people who defecate in the open say that they do so because it is pleasurable, comfortable and convenient.’ The SQUAT survey, however, was conducted in rural areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar and did not cover the whole country.

There are two available sources to look at the water and sanitation status of schools across the country. One is NUEPA’s District Information System for Education (DISE), which provides data that is self-reported annually by every school in India. The other is Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). ASER is the largest sample survey of learning outcomes of rural children in the country. Although ASER tests children in households, it also visits the largest government primary school in every sampled village to record basic information on infrastructure and enrollments. ASER 2014 covered in excess of 15,000 schools in 577 rural districts of the country.

Interestingly, despite differences in methodology, the most recent numbers reported by both sources match very closely. Thus DISE 2013-14 recorded that 94.24% of primary schools of the country have a boy’s toilet, whereas ASER 2014 found 93.7% of primary schools had toilets used by boys. However, ASER also shows clearly that the mere provision of a toilet is not sufficient. In 28.5% schools, the toilet was unusable, leaving a much smaller proportion of 65.2% schools which had a usable toilet for boys.

Similarly, DISE 2013-14 reports that a girl’s toilet was available in 84.12 % primary schools, while the corresponding figure from ASER 2014 matches very closely at 81.2%. However, ASER figures show that in 12.9% schools the girls’ toilets were locked and in 12.6% they were unusable. Thus only 55.7% schools had a girls’ toilet that was both unlocked and usable.

For drinking water in primary schools, DISE 2013-14 reported availability in 95.29% schools, whereas ASER 2014 reported that although 86.1% of schools visited had a drinking water facility, in 10.5% of schools there was no availability of water despite the provision.

Lamentably, despite the ‘right to safe drinking water’ of every child, quality issues related to water are hardly discussed. In 2011, Pratham conducted a human development survey under the aegis of the Planning Commission of India and the GoI-UN Joint Programme on Convergence. Known as PAHELI, this survey included a water and sanitation component, where amongst other activities the quality of water in the primary schools and ICDS centres was checked. Faecal Coliform or bacterial test was administered in 392 schools and 373 Anganwadis spread over 7 districts in 7 states. Drinking water in 50% of the schools and 45.6% of the Aanganwadis was found to be contaminated.

So, we have a situation where the majority of our countrymen in rural areas are defecating in the open, in many cases despite availability of toilets in the households; 2/3rd of the rural government schools have functional toilets that boys can use; just over ½ of these schools have separate functional toilets for girls; and in school potable water that is contaminated in many places. In case of school toilets, both data sources coincide that large proportions of schools have the necessary physical facilities; ASER tells us that in many cases these are either kept locked or are unfit to be used.

The current water and sanitation situation, together with the educational status is a serious threat to the development of young and aspirational India, half of which is under 25 years of age. The honourable Prime Minister’s initiative to bring the problem to the forefront and do something about it, last year, was indeed laudable. So has been the interest shown by corporate India and celebrities in terms of constructing toilets, adopting schools and making millions of rupees available for the endeavour. However, construction of the required physical facilities does not by itself solve the problem – this is only the first step. Attention to issues such as availability of water, regular maintenance of facilities and foremost attitudinal change towards usage of toilets by householders are necessary to ensure that the facilities provided can actually be used by their intended beneficiaries.

Ranajit Bhattacharyya is General Manager, ASER Centre