Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | The state of water, sanitation and hygiene in schools

Over the last few years, India has continuously made great strides in the sanitation space, the impetus to which was received from the government’s 2014 flagship project Swachh Bharat Mission. The plan has separate agendas of sanitation for urban and rural India, but they largely focus on improved solid and liquid waste management and ending open defecation, a crying need that required addressing throughout the nation. Sanitation coverage has increased from 38% in 2014 to 65% in 2017. The government also earmarked funds to improve water and sanitation facilities across all spectra of society and also encouraged India Inc. to contribute corporate social responsibility funds towards this cause. While the private sector’s participation has been promising, there still remains much to be done. Although the results have shown positive strides having been taken, more targeted interventions by the private sector, civil society and municipalities is the need of the hour, to look at solutions that will stand the test of time. Looking at the progress made under the mission, according to a recent WaterAid report, India now ranks sixth among countries trying to reduce open defecation and has been able to achieve a decline of 26 percentage points in its endeavour since 2000. It also features among the top 10 countries of the world who have improved their basic sanitation practices.

Another programme launched under the ambit of the mission was the Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya (SBSV) programme with an objective to provide gender-segregated toilet facilities for girls and boys in government elementary and secondary schools. According to data available, 417,000 toilets were constructed in over 261,000 government schools within a year after the launch of the SBSV programme.

But does an enabling environment exist for SBSV?

An ambitious target of maintenance and repair was set in SBSV plan with the following frequencies—daily, weekly, monthly, fortnightly, quarterly and annually. However, four years later, one of the many problems with the water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) facilities constructed is with their operations and maintenance (O&M), thus directly affecting their usability. Dearth of funds, whether private, corporate or government, is an issue that has not been given its due. Schools often face a trade-off between utilizing allocated funds for general infrastructural O&M and for Wash-related O&M. In any case, the meagre funds dedicated solely for Wash maintenance are insufficient to even engage maintenance staff on a regular basis. This has also meant that ancillary activities like regular cleaning of pipes to ensure a well-functioning drainage system and periodic cleaning of water structures to ensure potability of water have taken a back seat. In such a scenario, there is heavy dependence on the school authorities to rely on contributions from the community to maintain these structures lest they become defunct. An independent study surveyed 453 schools and found that almost 50% of teachers shared that structural repair work and cleaning of sewage lines, waste water lines, septic tanks and leach pits in schools was never done and 81.5% attributed this failure to the lack of funds to maintain and manage Wash programmes while a sizeable chunk stated that untimely release of funds was the reason.

Another problem that has not received the attention it deserves is the slow pace and frequency of effecting a behavioural change at the ground level with regard to sanitation. It is prudent to assume that for many communities, their children are not just first generation learners in the family, they are also first generation toilet users in schools. Social and behavioural changes are difficult to come by as they require sustained efforts and need to complement the actual construction of facilities. Hence, behaviour change needs to be initiated at the school level right after the introduction of Wash facilities and programmes in a well-planned manner and reiterated through information, education and communication materials at regular intervals so that students can imbibe the lessons learned and turn these into habit. Simultaneously, the regularity of sanitation-related awareness and sensitization drives in communities needs to be upped so that there is an attitudinal change even at the household level. Bringing the importance of Wash into the curriculum of schools is one way of ensuring that the importance of the issue remains top and centre in the minds of teachers, students and administrators.

What can be changed here?

For Wash initiatives to see holistic success, it is crucial that conducive aspects such as behavioural and attitudinal change, earmarking of funds for O&M and support structures such as proper drainage facilities are also considered equally important, for construction of physical facilities is but a cog in the wheel. Hence, the need of the hour is for the collective focus to assume softer elements such as regular trainings, inspection of facilities, monitoring and assessment of facilities, and eventually finding reconciliatory approaches to the problems faced on the ground even as the construction of Wash infrastructure continues. If we as a country are to enable equal opportunities to all sections of our society, ensuring basic access to crucial services is the starting point of a healthy and happy population. 

Jaivir Singh is vice-chairman, PwC India Foundation. Views are personal

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