New Delhi: It’s 2020 and yet over half of the world’s population lacks safe sanitation — a staggering 4.2 billion people across the world still live without access to toilets.
Every year on 19 November, the United Nations celebrates World Toilet Day to create awareness about the 4.2 billion people, who are living without ‘safely managed sanitation’. The UN commemorates this day to take the stock of actions taken to tackle issues surrounding sanitation.
It aims to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6, which states that access to water and sanitation for all people must be accomplished by 2030.
This year, the emphasis has been not just on ensuring sanitation access for all, but also making it sustainable.
“Climate change is getting worse. Flood, drought and rising sea levels are threatening sanitation systems — from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants. Everyone must have sustainable sanitation, alongside clean water and hand-washing facilities, to help protect and maintain our health security and stop the spread of deadly infectious diseases,” stated the UN in its proposal for this year’s World Toilet Day.
It recommended that sustainable sanitation will also help the agricultural sector since waste can be reused, which would reduce emissions ensuring a greener world.
In order to develop sanitation that is environment-friendly, the UN suggests that the toilets built should capture human waste in a ‘safe’, ‘accessible’ and ‘dignified setting’. The waste must be stored in a tank, which can later be emptied out either by workers or by pipes. Further, the waste should be treated and safe disposal should be ensured.
“Safe reuse of human waste helps save water, reduces and captures greenhouse gas emissions for energy production, and can provide agriculture with a reliable source of water and nutrients,” it states.
India’s fight for toilets
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which brought cleanliness to the fore, India’s fight for sanitation has made considerable progress.
Dr Suneel Pandey, director, Environment and Waste Management, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), told ThePrint: “While India has constructed a lot of toilets, what’s turning out to be a challenge is how to keep them clean. There are certain technical challenges as well on how to manage waste water.”
Asked about how close India is to the UN’s goal of achieving sanitation for all by 2030, Dr Pandey said: “We have made some progress, but it will be challenging to meet this target by 2030, considering that India is a vast country with different climatic conditions. It will be a challenge to make sanitation and toilets available in a safe and hygienic manner.”
Dr Suresh Kumar Rohilla, senior director, Water Programme, Centre for Science and Environment, told ThePrint: “Just providing toilets doesn’t mark for all sanitation facilities, it also includes providing solid waste management systems, linking drainage and water.”
Given the coronavirus pandemic, there has been an heightened emphasis on the disposal of bio-medical waste and solid waste management.
Dr Rohilla recalled that during the pandemic informal sanitation workers were not recognised as part of essential services, which later created a backlog of work related to waste management.
“The system has to recognise the role of these workers. People who are involved in sanitation should be protected,” he said.
Along with continued sensitisation of people about sanitation and toilet hygiene, Dr Rohilla proposed that an innovation in policy and practice was needed to ensure sustainability.
‘Presence of facilities doesn’t ensure usage’
While the world grapples with instating sustainable sanitation, India is still combatting against open defecation.
In addition to sanitation for all, UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 is also targeted at completely eliminating the practice of open defecation and “paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”.
Even though the UN aims to eliminate open defecation by 2030, PM Modi’s government had declared India to be open defecation free in October 2019 itself.
Modi had announced that more than 600 million people in India had been provided with toilets. The government also said that in over 60 months, 110 million toilets were built.
While Modi declared India to be open defecation free, a government survey has contradicted his claim.
The 76th National Sample Survey conducted by the National Statistical Organisation found that as of September 2018, 28.7 per cent people in Indian rural households lacked access to toilets, while 32 per cent practised open defecation.
The survey’s findings went against the claims made by the Swachh Bharat Mission, which asserted that only 6 per cent of households in India didn’t have access to toilets during that period.
Asked about whether India is open defecation free, experts on sanitation and waste water management contended that reality on ground is drastically different in comparison to what has been claimed by the Modi government .
Dr Rohilla said: “On paper, yes (India is open defecation free).”
But he pointed out the criteria for declaring a region open defecation free — a facility should be provided in every house or even 50 meters away from the house.
“The definition for ODF (open defecation free) is that there is a facility provided. But it doesn’t mean they are using it. That fine print is always there,” he explained.
Challenges to accessing toilets
Dr Rohilla revealed that on the ground there were several instances where toilets were being used as stores because there was no water.
A study conducted across Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh by the Research Institute of Compassionate Economics in January 2019 found that 23 per cent of the people in rural areas defecate in the open. This was despite them having access to toilets.
Dr Pandey of TERI said: “We are not totally open defecation free. The main challenge for the states, who have declared themselves to be ODF free, is to not fall back… Some findings have revealed that 90 per cent of India is open defecation free.”
He further said the government’s actions are not enough. “With technical solutions, there also needs to be a package of behavioural and cultural issues, which brings about a mindset change.”
Meanwhile, Dr Rohilla emphasised on the need to ensure that facilities created by the government are much safer than defecating in the open.
“Sanitation is a local subject. People in villages and towns are themselves responsible for the maintenance of these structures and the usage of these structures.”
“If the toilet facility is created and is not maintained hygienically, probably open defecation still might be safer compared to badly managed toilets,” Dr Pandey said.
“The government has to make people realise that the facilities they have created are safer than defecating outside,” he added.