Positive power of cleanliness

Imagine that you are travelling by train early in the morning. Along the railway tracks, you will see people of all ages, sitting in a row, defecating in the open. Women not excluded. Besides open defecation, urination on roadsides or anywhere in the open is another stinking nuisance on the rise in many Indian cities.

Lack of public toilets, difficulty in adopting proper sanitation practices, poorly constructed or ill-maintained household and public toilets continue to be major hurdles in the creation of a hygienic environment in cities and villages. And due to rigid habits, some people don't use a toilet even if they have one.

On both social and religious grounds, cleanliness has been reckoned as a catalyst for improving the quality of life. Unkempt appearances are repulsive. Cleansing is essential before prayers and rituals. Cluttered ambience arouses negativity and it can be fretting and counterproductive.

The initiative to exclusively address the issue of toilets globally was taken up in 2001 by World Toilet Organisation (WTO), a non-profit body that seeks to eliminate the ignominy associated with toilet taboo. And contributing to sustainable sanitation, it also organises World Toilet Summits to discuss innovative inventions, projects and products that help maintain sanitation. Its founder, Jack Sim earned the nickname 'Mr Toilet' for his activism in breaking the taboo around toilets.

That toilets save lives by preventing the spread of killer diseases, is yet to be learnt at large. Diarrhoea, gastroenteritis, anaemia and jaundice have been linked to poor sanitation facilities and practices, besides non-availability of safe drinking water.

Prevalence of water-borne diseases is higher in rural areas than in cities. At the same time, although 6 billion people (63%) in the world have mobile phones, only 4.5 billion (47%) have access to toilets, says the United Nations. It is estimated that if everyone in the world would use a proper toilet, around 2,00,000 children and $260 billion could be saved annually in developing countries.

Considering the vital role of sanitation in the upkeep of health, the UN resolved 'sanitation for all' as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed to by all member-nations. It seeks to end the practice of open-air defecation, which is not only a threat to public health but also "a question of basic dignity and women safety" since open defecation (OD) denies them the right to privacy. Recognising the role of civil society and voluntary organisations in creating awareness about sanitation, the UN resolution calls on member-countries to devise appropriate interventions for improving sanitation facilities including wastewater management.

Too little, too late

In India, efforts to improve sanitation started in 1986 by the Central Rural Sanitation Programme but a systematic headway was made after the launch of Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999. It sought to "accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas through access to toilets to all" so as to end open defecation by 2017.

However, an audit of TSC for the period 2009-14 by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) noted weak performance, large-scale diversions, wastages and irregularities. Over a third of household latrines were non-functional due to the poor quality of construction, incomplete structure, non-maintenance etc.

So, it was relaunched as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in 2012 with incentives like Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) awards to districts, blocks or Gram Panchayats having achieved 100% sanitation coverage of individual households, free from OD and clean environment. The current regime imbued fresh life into the sanitation activities by launching Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on October 2, 2014. It drew massive support from the corporate world, who doled out large sums towards setting up and maintaining toilets, particularly in schools.

Poor sanitation is linked to poverty. Commenting on the role of sanitation, president of American University Sylvia Mathews Burwell said, "No innovation in the past 200 years
has done more to save lives and improve health than the sanitation revolution triggered by invention of the toilet. But it did not go far enough. It only reached one-third of the world."

On the other hand, good sanitation exudes positive vibes and is often said to be next to godliness. As a pragmatic modality in this direction, religious institutions can be bound to maintain public toilets in their premises, especially if the land is allotted on concessional rates.

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