No toilets for 53 per cent population of world’s third biggest economy

In India, virtually every second person is defecating in the open, every third person is drinking unsafe water and at least 1,000 children are dying every day due to a preventable disease like diarrhoea. This grim picture of the world’s third fastest growing economy was unveiled through the country’s latest census report on drinking water and sanitation, which the Government of India released this month. Earlier on March 6, the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water and Sanitation (JMP) report, released by UNICEF and WHO, too confirmed that in India 59 per cent of people [626 million] defecate in the open. The report had pointed out that - “India is lagging behind 11 years to meet the Millennium Development Goal target, in which the government has resolved that the statistics of open defecation [base 1990] would be halved by 2015.
However, the census report presents an alarming development and quotes an 11 per cent decline in households having toilets. The percentage has gone down to 53 now from 64 in 2011. Defending the government on the latest statistics, an official from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, on condition of anonymity, admits, “Though the government efforts for sanitation are producing eager results, a lot needs to be done, looking at the quantum of needs of the population.” 
The official said that the budget for the sector has been more than doubled, from Rs 1,500 crore in 2011-12 to Rs 3,500 crore for the coming fiscal year. Besides, a detailed exercise is underway for the 12th Five Year Plan to pin-point the shortcomings and evolve ways to plug them. Meanwhile, the ground reality is that at least 17 per cent women in the rural areas walk more than half a km to get water for their families and for their cattle, and 55 per cent of them are forced to bathe in the open because they do not have any private bathing facilities.

“Just because we are poor, it does not mean that we do not deserve to live with dignity. But the fact of life is that no government thinks about poor,” a forty-plus Savitri Devi from Kalinga village of Orissa state resonates the voice of her rural tribal community. The Indian census is the most credible source to reveal the real status of demography [population characteristics including literacy, housing and household amenities, health statistics, economic activities etc.]

The 2011 census covered 7,935 towns and 640,867 villages across 35 states/union territories. The first phase of the two parts census focuses on ‘house-listings and housing’ whereas the second phase on ‘population enumeration’. The idea behind house-listing and housing is to ascertain the exact number of houses besides identifying amenities accessible and assets available to each house. According to this census data, 36 per cent of households do not have a source of water in places where they live. Women are forced to walk at least 500 metres in rural areas and at least 100 meters in urban areas to collect water. The situation is worse in certain arid areas, which are drought prone or face perennial water shortage, such as Bundelkhand area in Uttar Pradesh or states like Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. 

“The progress on water and sanitation needs to be accelerated, as unsafe water and poor sanitation have direct linkages with the consistent anaemic levels of children and women,” says a policy analyst Yogesh Bandhu from Uttar Pradesh state. A study published in British Medical Journal Lancet [August 2011] reported – “India continues to be plagued with high anaemia among women and children and 40 per cent of five-year-old children are anaemic.” 

Similar statistics was presented in HUNGaMA [Hunger and Malnutrition] report, released in December 2011. The report said that in India 42 per cent children under five year of age are underweight and 59 per cent have stunted growth. As per United Nations’ estimate, 2.1 million Indian children die before reaching the age of 5 every year. Reacting to the census statistics and the present scenario, a written statement issued by WaterAid read, “It is an alarm call for all of us. There is a need to accelerate coverage so that children do not continue to lose their lives, people remain healthy and live with dignity in keeping with our constitution and international commitments.”

Meanwhile, the situation gets more alarming if a comparison is done of the statistics presented by different agencies of the government. For example, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation claims 74 per cent sanitation coverage in the urban areas of the country. The Joint Monitoring Programme quotes 39 per cent and the Census report puts sanitation coverage at 30.7 per cent, which is less than half of the figures presented by the ministry. 

Same is the story with rural sanitation, for which the Ministry claim is 53 per cent whereas the Joint Monitoring Programme and census data keep the figure at 33 and 30 per cent, respectively. Similar differences are observed in the state-specific statistics. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation claims that in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh only 31.7 and 34.8 per cent population lack sanitation facility. On the other hand, the Census data reports that 78 per cent population in Uttar Pradesh and 86.9 per cent in Madhya Pradesh do not have access to sanitation facilities. The ministry claims in Tamil Nadu only 23.4 per cent people do not have sanitation coverage while the Census data reports 76.8 per cent people lack sanitation coverage in Tamil Nadu. 

Clarifying the situation, an official  from the ministry indicates the need for a more accurate monitoring system. “The monitoring mechanism is being revamped and efforts are on to evolve a community-based monitoring system. Besides, GPS technology is being taken into consideration and pilot projects are already on in a few states like Himanchal Pradesh and Bihar.”

Alka Pande
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India)

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