The poor in India have more uses for a mobile than a toilet

The poor in India have more uses for a mobile than a toilet

The poor in India have more uses for a mobile than a toilet

Using such comparison, the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health (IWEH) recent report makes a case for expanding toilet coverage in a country where 69 per cent of the population still defecates in the open.

IWEH director Zafar Adeel, the author of the report, equates mobile penetration and toilet coverage as a reflection of country’s continuing sanitation crises in the light of its incredible telecom success story. However, it is erroneous to compare the two as mobiles phones will outnumber toilets at any given point in time because a toilet may have multiple users whereas a mobile phone has been designed for personal use only.

While presuming a high degree of rationality in concluding that it is only a matter of $300 that can help the poor own a toilet, the author seems ambivalent to the issue of rational decision making by the poor in making such a choice against other imperatives. The policy makers see toilets with the express intent of reducing contamination, but for the poor it enforces a culture of hygiene that in turn imposes additional cess on their daily survival.

No wonder, the de-regulation of telecom sector may have impelled the mobile phone market through private-sector investment but the subsidy-driven sanitation sector has failed to create a market for toilets. ‘Total sanitation campaign,’ the government’s flagship programme launched in 1999, has suffered on account of peoples’ apathy. Far from generating demand, it hasn’t even encouraged adoption of toilets that come with a subsidy of Rs 2,500 per toilet.

Oblivious of such ground realities, the report has only been able to sensationalise the issue for seeking additional public investment in sanitation. Unlike in the West, toilets for a vast majority that survives on less than $2 a day may not be a good idea. For them, easing in public seems a democratic decree. Because public empathy towards squatting has remained secular, never did it trigger any strife in matter of appropriating public space for conducting private action.

One is not in support of open defecation but the fact is that shit in itself may not be a problem. Left on its own, it engages millions of microbes in enriching the soil with organic carbon. The moment it comes in contact with water, something that a toilet facilitates, the trouble starts. Each water body, be it a pond or a river, gets an undesired share of floating excreta at various stages of decomposition which proves fatal to some half a million children below the age of five.

Relative aspects
The idea of sanitation, with toilet being its accepted symbol, may be on a wrong footing in a country where abject poverty, lack of housing and migration are consistent social realities. Further, the actual demand for toilets will continue to grow rather endlessly given the fact that the number of poor is growing exponentially, more families are breaking into smaller units and undetermined numbers of households are migrating in search of new opportunities.
Added to it is that fact that lack of toilet, unhygienic conditions and infant mortality don’t correlate in peoples’ mind as they do in experts’ papers. Consequently, Adeel’s contention that an impressive (indirect) return of between $3 and $34 can be expected for every dollar spent on sanitation does not trigger any renewed interest. That open defecation generates externalities of contamination for the rest of the population therefore remains a theoretical proposition.

Need it be said that the issue of toilet is more than just a function of its cost. Its relation to the sociology and psychology of potential users has yet to be fully understood. As Capt Von Trapp says in ‘Sound of Music’, we all seem to be “suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity”. One such curious aspect relates to the fact that a toilet makes unreasonable demand on increasingly scarce public resource — water, which is rarely factored while designing sanitation campaigns.
Another curious aspect has recently come to light; hundreds of newly built toilets have been ripped apart by poor households in many parts of rural Madhya Pradesh. Such incidents reportedly abound across the countryside. The reason: possessing a toilet lifts the households above the poverty line (as it adds up the requisite points to jump the line) and strips the poor family of the lucrative monthly doles like assured employment and free food grains.

The virtue of living ‘below poverty line’ is without doubt compelling; a one-time toilet in contrast is a poor substitute. The tragedy is that neither has the technology of toilet been examined as a reflection of perceived needs nor has it been seen as intent to fuel demand through institutional innovation for fighting poverty. Unless the issue of toilet is perceived in its totality, it will be easier to dial than to flush.
(The author is a water expert)