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Rural Sanitation in India

Rural sanitation in India has doubled from low of 22% to a high of 44% in recent past. It is held that toilet or lack of it is the indicator of a country’s health. The total sanitation campaign launched by government of India has stretched to the last of the 597 districts to turn the rural landscape free from squatting.

Government has also launched a prize for the clean villages. Till this year 4,959 villages had bagged Nirmal Gram Puraskar a clean village prize for having flush toilets in every household and school. Ranging from Rs 2, 00,000 for the smallest village to Rs 50, 00,000 for the biggest district the award has given a fillip to the subsidy driven toilet construction programme as villages compete to gain recognition.

The flip side of this development is that despite millions of toilets having been built over 500 million rural people still defecate in the open every day. Reports indicate that a significant number of people in the awarded villages are reverting to the age-old habit. Sanitation is more than just making a toilet through subsidy. The emphasis of the sanitation campaign has been more on achieving targets than on transforming behaviour.The focus is on multiplying the number of toilets rather than socio-engineering of the concept in the lives of the rural people. The award has helped officials without explaining the reason for doing so. The exclusive emphasis on constructing toilet seems to be the root cause of the problem. Government support in the form of cash subsidy to match poverty groupings is grossly inadequate for building the entire structure. A subsidy ranging from Rs 900 -1500 warrants an equal or greater contribution form the user to complete the toilet construction. Therefore it is not uncommon to find a large number of incomplete toilets in rural areas.

Social scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles are looking at society’s collective blindness towards the practice of open defecation and the reluctance to change. People have to change their attitudes and beliefs toward the whole issue. The sanitation campaign does not involve women which is reflected in its single design. Toilet design should have taken into consideration the fact that women spend three times more time in toilet than men.

Increasing sanitation coverage in rural areas would require more clarity of the issue and understanding of the rural sensibilities. Building toilets is just one half of the battle; the other half is to make people use them. The number of villages winning Nirmal Gram Puraskar may be inspiring only if uncovered villages are not taken into count.

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