Not just a dial away

Not just a dial away

Indians can attend calls on their mobile phones more easily than attending nature’s call. It seems mobile phone penetration outnumbers personal toilet users in a country that’s growing near 8% even during a global slowdown. But it does emphasize that while India’s telecom market is an incredible success story, its sanitation crises continue to be a big shame. Shockingly, at least 69% of the country’s total population defecates in the open.

The United Nations University’s (UNU) Institute for Water, Environment and Health (IWEH) report this month gives a more numerical angle to this crisis. It says India has some 545 million cellphone users compared with around 366 million people having access to improved sanitation. In making a case for toilets, IWEH director Zafar Adeel, the author of the report, wonders why a country that is “now wealthy enough...cannot afford the basic necessity of a toilet".

Adeel concludes that it’s only a matter of $300 that can help the poor own a toilet. But is it that simple to treat this social malady?

While the deregulation of the telecom sector has spurred growth of mobile phones through private sector investments, the sanitation sector, driven by at least Rs2,500 of subsidy per toilet, has lacked similar vision to buoy the spread of toilets. It has neither generated demand nor encouraged adoption of toilets. Instead, it has driven the poor away from adopting or using them. So we must ask why the poor still don’t realize the externalities that open defecation imposes on the rest of the population.

Total Sanitation Campaign, the government’s flagship programme launched in 1999, which aims to free the countryside of squatters, has suffered on account of people’s apathy. In fact, it may be more than apathy: In recent times, poor households in many parts of rural Madhya Pradesh have ripped apart hundreds of newly built toilets, subsidized by the state. Eyewitness reports show that such incidents have been rampant across the countryside, defeating the ambitious Total Sanitation Campaign.

For once, the poor become destructive because the “below poverty line" (BPL) tag that helps secure the state’s support for a toilet rips this same tag once they become the proud owner of a toilet. Possessing a toilet adds up requisite points to pull them out of BPL status, and strips them of the attractive doles. Who would not want to remain poor when 100 days of assured employment, cashless healthcare facility, subsidized foodgrains and free education are on offer? The virtue of being BPL is without doubt compelling.

The poor see the toilet as a one-time gain, a contraption that ends up being a poor substitute for lucrative monthly gains through government dole. To them, a permanent toilet holds no value—and is more an infringement. So they don’t see that a lack of permanent toilets, unhygienic conditions and infant mortality could all be correlated, as the expert reports do.

The tragedy is that neither side gets it. The policymakers see this from the sanitation point of view, so they recommend public programmes that subsidize toilets with the express intent of enforcing hygiene and, thereby, reducing contamination. Adeel contends that an impressive return of between $3 and $34 can be expected for every dollar spent. The poor don’t see the hygiene issue, but then again, the policymakers don’t see what the poor’s perceived needs are, and what incentives they respond to. They don’t seem to design sanitation programmes as part of the institutional innovation to wholly combat poverty.

The UNU report has ended up sensationalizing the issue of sanitation yet again with its predictable recommendation of increasing toilet coverage—one that has continued to fail. Unless the issue of sanitation is perceived in its totality, dial will remain easier than flush.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a development analyst with the Ecological Foundation, New Delhi. Comment at