New Delhi: Under cover of a hot night in May in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district, two teenage cousins stepped out to do what millions of girls and women do across the country.

‘Answering the call of nature’ is a euphemism that implies some blessed, bucolic state where individuals act on free will when nature ‘calls’.

The reality is considerably more sordid. Across the country, in rural as well as urban India, millions of women and girls either wake up well before dawn or wait until late at night to use the open fields that function as their toilet.

In Badaun, the cousins were doing what every other woman in the village does. Unlike the others, they never returned. The next morning, their raped and brutalized bodies were found strung up from a mango tree, like a perverse trophy for the entire village to see. The Badaun incident led to national outrage but even as the case is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and monitored by the Allahabad high court, reports of more rapes and murders from Uttar Pradesh continue to make headlines.

In Haryana’s Bhagana village, four Dalit girls aged from 13 to 18 had stepped out, like the Badaun cousins, late at night to use the fields. A white car with five men inside pulled up alongside. “They put a piece of cloth on our mouths," says the 18-year-old. “We lost consciousness and that is all I remember." They were found the next day at Bhatinda railway station, 170km away. A subsequent medical examination confirmed rape.

Rape is not caused by a lack of toilets or the clothes women wear or where they go or who they meet. Rape is caused by men who rape.

When women are forced to seek out some measure of privacy in desolate spots late at night or early in the morning, before people are up and about, they become more vulnerable to sexual assault. Having a toilet at home will not stop rape unless men stop raping. But it will mitigate one of the many risks women face. At the very least it will afford them a measure of necessary dignity.

Nearly 30% women who walk long distances to meet their toilet needs are violently assaulted every year, found a 2012 report by Pune-based philanthropic organization Dasra. It’s not much better in cities. A United Nations survey found that 70% of girls in Delhi slums experience daily humiliation and verbal harassment; half have been victims of grave physical assault.

Toilets and sanitation are not the same. Sanitation is the “process of keeping people and places free from dirt and germs and thereby, infection and disease", writes Jayamala Subramaniam, chief executive officer of Arghyam, a foundation focused on sanitation and drinking water. This is achieved through proper waste disposal and personal hygiene.

Toilets are an important step for achieving sanitation. Yet, more than six decades after independence, half our citizens—over 600 million Indians—simply do not have access to a toilet either at home or in their communities, Census 2011 found. Nearly 44% of schools in 2012 lacked separate, functioning toilets for girls. A survey of 200 slums in Mumbai finds that not even one had a toilet. And 115,000km of Indian railway tracks, the fourth largest in the world, are an open sewage system: biodegradable toilets that do not deposit waste on the tracks were introduced in eight of 12,000 passenger trains only as recently as 2012.

This chronic toilet shortage means a lack of sanitation, obviously. But it also strips every person who is forced to squat outdoors of basic human dignity. In 2010, the UN Convention on Human Rights introduced an amendment, to which India is a signatory, which recognized sanitation and water as a human right.

Lack of sanitation has special consequences for women, not just in terms of assault, but also in terms of their health. Being forced to wait for the privacy of darkness leads to urinary tract infection, constipation, stress and poor menstrual hygiene.

Lack of sanitation is why 1,600 children under the age of five die of diarrhoea every day. It also makes them vulnerable to parasitic infections, chronic under-nutrition and poor development, including stunted growth.

Lack of sanitation results in girls dropping out of school once they attain puberty. A 2012 Cry (Child Rights and You) survey found that the lack of toilets in schools was a grave concern for low-income group parents and daughters in cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Yet, investment in sanitation has the highest return on investment of any development intervention. According to the Dasra report, every dollar spent on sanitation results in $9 saved in health, education and economic growth.

How does a country that prides itself as an emerging economic power, that harks back to the sanitation system found in the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization, that talks of inclusive growth, justify this neglect?

Part of the problem is the stigma attached to working in sanitation. With very few exceptions, corporates do not deploy corporate social responsibility funds in this area, finds the Dasra report.

Partly it is the attitude of politicians who have considered sanitation (and drinking water) to be beneath their dignity—in 2011, for instance, Congressman Gurudas Kamat refused to take charge of sanitation and water, deeming the portfolio too lowly. But partly it is also lack of awareness among communities on the need and importance of sanitation.

We have a new prime minister who had declared back in October 2013: “Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya (first toilets, then temples)".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spelt out his 10 priorities, and innovative thinking and solutions is one of them.

Will India’s sanitation solution be one of them? Can the new government ensure the most basic dignity to all our citizens?

For the cousins in Badaun it is too late. But millions of women, and men, still wait in hope.

This is the first part of a Mint series on Toilets for India.

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