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Official data suggests that access to water, and the practice of hand-washing is significantly lower in rural parts of the country. (ANI)
Official data suggests that access to water, and the practice of hand-washing is significantly lower in rural parts of the country. (ANI)

Rural India’s covid-19 challenge: Low access to soap and water

A majority of rural households do not use soap and water to wash their hands, official survey data shows

As India starts relaxing the nationwide lockdown, rural areas will see greater benefits compared to urban India. Fewer covid-19 cases have been detected in rural areas so far but unless agricultural activity resumes in villages, rabi crop harvesting will suffer.

One key challenge in ensuring the virus does not take hold in India’s populous countryside will be to ensure adequate hygiene and hand-washing practices. Official data suggests that access to water, and the practice of hand-washing is significantly lower in rural parts.

Compared with some Asian peers, the share of Indians who wash their hands regularly with soap and water is low. But when compared with the average for lower middle income countries, the share is slightly higher.

The aggregate figure, however, hides deep disparities. Data from the last National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16 shows a majority of rural households not washing their hands with soap and water regularly. In urban India, the proportion was much lower. Hand-washing practices are much more rare among the poor than the rich and among the unschooled compared to the better-educated. Hand hygiene among families headed by those without any education is alarmingly poor, with only 43% washing their hands with soap and water. In contrast, in households headed by those with at least 12 years of schooling, 85% wash hands with soap and water.

But it is not just lack of education or health awareness that drive these disparities.

Many among the uneducated and the poor don’t have access to water.

Data from the latest Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) across countries shows that India lags behind peers in access to drinking water on premises.

The lack of water availability in the house forces people (usually women) to go out to fetch water from common or public water sources, making physical distancing difficult.

Data from a recent National Sample Survey (NSS) report on drinking water and sanitation based on a 2018 survey shows that only 49% of rural households had exclusive access to a primary source of drinking water on their premises.

Across states, there are wide variations in water access, with both rural and urban households of relatively poor states, such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, having limited access to drinking water. Water availability on premises also appears to be relatively low in some of the southern states

Across states, rural areas have lower access to a drinking source in their premises compared with urban areas.

Limited access to water and the absence of hygiene could pose significant challenges in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in several parts of rural India.

If the gains from the lockdown were to be sustained, these issues would require urgent attention.

Aakanksha Arora is a deputy director at the ministry of finance and Aasheerwad Dwivedi is an assistant professor at the Delhi-based Shri Ram College of Commerce

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