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The crow and the broom: Progress on sanitation in the South

By Darryl D'Monte

Kerala has made remarkable progress in the area of sanitation. As many as 96% of its houses have toilets -- close to 600,000 have been built in the last decade. The state’s cleanliness campaign has a strong parallel with the literacy movement for which Kerala is famous throughout the world. Other Southern states are not far behind

public toilet in a rural India

Unknown to most, the rural development ministry is pulling out all the stops to organise the third South Asia Conference on Sanitation, or SACOSAN, in Delhi mid-November. This bi-annual event was last held in Islamabad, while the first was in Dhaka. India, as ‘Big Brother’ in the region, should have got its act together much earlier. Still, better late…

Sanitation, it appears, is ‘nobody’s child’ and has suffered centuries of neglect, at best, and outright hostility at worst. At a recent media conclave in Chennai, organised by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, T M Vijay Bhaskar, joint secretary in the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS), in the ministry, characterised it as “the last taboo” and “the last chapter in human development” compared to other development sectors that enjoy much greater visibility in the public realm.

The UN has agreed on several Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be accomplished by 2015 -- a bare seven years away. There are, quite simply, twice the number of people in the world who have to make do without sanitation as those without clean drinking water: 2.4 billion versus 1.2 billion. And yet, the allocation of funds to the water sector (including by water multinationals) is far greater than to sanitation.

One dimension of the problem is that people don’t sufficiently perceive that there is an umbilical link between poor sanitation and the spread of disease. Experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have often pointed out that even in an advanced industrial country like the UK, 60% of citizens don’t wash their hands after defecation. At the recent World Water Week in Stockholm, experts observed that the number of deaths in the world due to AIDS equals those due to diarrhoea. However, as Bhaskar remarked, 80% of the funds “of one country”, presumably the US, to tackling poor heath in developing countries went towards treating AIDS, and only 2% to sanitation.

The central government only recently appointed Bhaskar as the first joint secretary for sanitation (which shows how belated the response has been), probably triggered by the impending conference. The new incumbent stressed that the intention of SACOSAN was to raise the profile of sanitation. Some years ago, the DDWS instituted its Nirmal Gram Puruskar awards for villages and districts that are declared open-defecation-free. These are major incentives for villagers because they are handed out by none other than the President which, once again, demonstrates how the government has been trying to raise the profile of this sector. This year, the President will give away the awards in three places, starting with the southern region, in Pune, on October 11.

Kerala has made remarkable progress in the area of sanitation. As many as 96% of its houses have toilets -- close to 500,000-600,000 have been built in the last decade. However, after this surge, it is proving difficult to traverse ‘the last mile’ -- mainly tribal hamlets in remote, inaccessible places and coastal and waterlogged areas. It was an historic victory when municipal unions agitated and barred the abhorrent practice of manual scavenging in the state. In Mumbai, by contrast, municipal workers are often overcome by fumes when they descend into sewers to clean them. This is a blatant human rights violation. In Bangalore, around five years ago, The Indian Express reported how young workers had to drink themselves into virtual oblivion before stepping down into this present-day version of Hades, which the middle class pretends to know nothing about.

Remarkably, in sharp contrast to the rest of India, Kerala’s coverage of rural and urban areas is almost equal, according to 2005 figures. This is largely due to the ‘rurban’ nature of Kerala’s development, particularly along the densely populated coast where town and village merge into each other seamlessly. Some 74% of schools are also covered, which makes a great difference to attendance. Elsewhere in India, the presence of toilets in schools has meant that children -- especially girls reaching puberty -- want to go to school, and miss it over weekends when they have to join their parents defecating out in the open.

Kerala has made greater strides than other states in implementing the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments and strengthening panchayati raj. A well-designed document titled Malinya Mukta Keralam, or Waste-Free Kerala, was published by the local self-government department of the state government last year. The campaign’s imaginative logo is a crow holding a jhadoo (broom) in its beak, which is as indigenous a symbol as could possibly be. Each gram panchayat covers around 25 sq km and has a population of 25,000. Quite rightly, the campaign sees the riddance of human and solid waste as both an obligation and a right of the people.

Officials believe that a key area is what development professionals term IEC -- short for information, education and communication. They are building on the huge head-start provided since the 1960s by the library movement, where educated professionals helped spread the reading habit to the remotest corners of the state. This was followed by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat, or KSSP, literally Science Literature Federation, where teachers and scientists went about translating scientific work into Malayalam and propagating it through a range of innovative methods. It was KSSP which, in the early-1970s, launched the successful battle to save Silent Valley from being swamped by a hydroelectric plant. One of Malinya Mukta’s campaigns is to publish grama pathrams or village newsletters. There are also kala jathas, or art processions, and environment and health drives.

In Kerala, thanks to the grassroots work done by the CPM and other progressive movements, panchayati raj has been very strong. The state has even conducted its own participatory resource mapping at the village level, which is the prerequisite for any dynamic transformation in the countryside. The cleanliness campaign has a strong parallel with the literacy movement for which Kerala is famous throughout the world. The power of the community galvanising itself to spread a social message can never be underestimated: the simple fact is that, unlike outside experts or officials descending on a village to tell people what to do, in such cases it is your friendly next-door neighbour who gets into the act.

The experience throughout Kerala -- it isn’t absolutely clear whether this is true of the entire Indian countryside -- is that individual toilets work better than community ones.  Since many people own small homes with their adjoining land, however tiny, they are socialised to dispose of excreta in septic tanks. This has probably to do with the seminal fact that using a toilet isn’t just a matter of engineering but has everything to do with one’s dignity. One has only to recall how Dr Bindeshwar Pathak began his now-world-renowned Sulabh toilets, starting with Patna, in the 1970s. Everyone scoffed at him, questioning who in that poverty-stricken city would be prepared to pay -- even the modest sum of 50 paise -- for a daily ablution that could be performed free of charge anywhere. From the very first day there were queues outside the pay-toilet block (women and children were then not charged).

However, the reliance on individual toilets, like some other social amenities, has not come without a price. Sanitation experts in Kerala observe that behaviour in many respects, at the community level, has declined, whether it be maintenance of roads, water quality in ponds, and so on. This is a well-known phenomenon in cities like Mumbai where a BMW-owner will not think twice before rolling down his window to spit, throw out a wrapper or even a cigarette butt. Private affluence co-exists with public squalor.

Kerala, along with other forward-looking southern states, has designed special toilets for schoolgirls. In Tamil Nadu, some schools have even installed incinerators in toilet blocks. When questioned about the environmental hazards of burning such refuse, officials point out that the sanitary napkins that poor students use are cottage products made entirely out of coarse cloth. At the Chennai conclave, they showed slides of dispensing machines at village schools in Tamil Nadu where such napkins were sold for Rs 2 -- a progressive social practice that would be unimaginable north of the Vindhyas. Some malls in Mumbai are resisting the installation of condom-vending machines.

In many states, the realisation is gradually dawning that sanitation must be seen as an integral part of dealing with all solid waste, in which plastic is probably the biggest offender. Some panchayats in these states have actually banned the use of plastic because they realise that plastic bags clog waterbodies and irrigation channels. In Kerala, officials emphasise how the failure to tackle solid waste in urban areas in the past has led to the outbreak of epidemics like chikungunya. On such occasions, this had a disastrous impact on one of Kerala’s main revenue-earners -- tourism -- and has led to the conviction that sanitation has much to do with development. Tourism in Sri Lanka, which resembles Kerala in many ways, has benefited from such epidemics in its ‘neighbouring state’.

In many southern states, where the strengthening of panchayati raj institutions has proceeded apace, there is a demand to include the construction of community toilets as part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) -- at the very least, the construction of pits for which the NREG Act will have to be amended. Banks have also started providing loans for toilets, and there is an almost universal recognition that subsidies don’t work at the individual level; they only lead to distortions in the system.

Tamil Nadu has energised its self-help groups, mainly consisting of women. The state’s IEC campaign is very vigorous, comprising streetcorner meetings and plays, oratory competitions, celebrating festivals like Pongal, art shows and visits to successful panchayats. Children are taught hygiene, which is an integral part of sanitation. Washing hands after defecation and before eating meals can literally save thousands of lives. (In Karnataka, where there isn’t water in village schools, they use ‘Tippy Taps’ -- large plastic containers which are hung from trees and can be tipped to wash hands using a minimal amount of water.)

There are now more than 5,000 such self-help groups in every district of Tamil Nadu. As much as 68% of individual homes throughout the state have a toilet. Nearly nine out of every 10 schools have been covered. Last year, 1,960 village panchayats and 11 block panchayats won Nirmal Gram Puruskars. Tamil Nadu has also forged strong partnerships with schools, NGOs, corporations and multilateral organisations like Unicef. All panchayats have at least one ‘girl-friendly’ toilet. There are toilet parks in some 30 districts, where all models of toilets are displayed. As many as 31 categories of solid waste are sorted out and recycled. Waste plastic is ground into powder and used to lay roads.

At the same time, there is a demand for better constructed toilets. Experts in sanitation like Joe Madiath of the NGO Gram Vikas in Orissa that has won a $1 million award for its initiatives in sanitation, have repeatedly pointed to the anomaly under which government officials believe that the rural poor can make do with makeshift, cheap toilets. Drainage remains extremely poor. In schools, children need to be trained to clean and maintain their toilets, which will otherwise fall into disuse after two or three years.

An area that remains at the experimental and, to some extent, publicity-seeking stage is eco-toilets. In a few demonstration projects in Karnataka, excreta is processed into vermicompost and used as manure. It can also be used in biogas plants, along with kitchen waste, which takes care of the two most troublesome forms of solid waste. In a few cases, urine is collected and used as fertiliser: most people are unaware that urine contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, or NPK, the main plant nutrients, which is why ‘urea’ derives from the same root. As in most facets of dealing with sanitation, it’s people’s attitudes that have to change rather than bureaucratic indifference or paucity of funds. This is where decentralised government agencies and people’s initiatives come into play.

Protagonists of eco-sanitation all over the world firmly believe that by separating urine and excreta, both can be re-used. Faeces, if exposed to the atmosphere, is rendered harmless -- except, ironically enough, for toxins in medicines that people take, which are often non-biodegradable. In fact, the centuries-old engineering of sewage systems employs water that is already made potable to carry minute amounts of solid and liquid waste, increasing the volume several-fold, and then finding increasingly difficult and expensive ways of disposing of this waste. This critique doesn’t even address the huge injustice of the majority in many cities like Mumbai, who are homeless, subsidising the sewage treatment of the minority with flush systems. Swedish and German experts have shown that even in a high-rise apartment building it is possible to install such a system, with the waste being collected separately and carried to nearby biogas plants or farms. As things are, however, eco-sanitation is a distant dream in every country.

InfoChange News & features, September 2008