ODF tag good, but it means little

Karnataka has been declared the 26th Open Defecation-Free (ODF) state in the country. Securing such a tag is no mean achievement in a country where open defecation has for long been the reality for a large segment of the rural population as well for the urban poor. According to official figures, just a third of Karnataka’s rural houses had individual toilets in 2014. That has changed now, the Karnataka government says. Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission nationwide in October 2014, 45 lakh toilets have been built across Karnataka, and now all of the 70.2 lakh rural households in the state have their own toilet. But the ODF tag is a bit of a misnomer. First, it applies only to rural households. Besides, declaring Karnataka to be an ODF state does not mean that all rural people are now using toilets to defecate or that defecation in the open is not happening anymore. An ODF state simply means that toilets have been built for all rural households. People may or may not be using them.

Also, at least some of the newly-built toilets exist only on paper. Consider Gujarat, for instance, which was declared ODF in October 2017. A Comptroller and Auditor General’s report subsequently found that 29% of Gujarat’s rural households did not have access to toilets. The Gujarat government’s claim of the state having built toilets for all rural households “does not appear to be correct,” the CAG report said. Could a CAG report soon draw attention to a similar situation in Karnataka?

Many people prefer defecating or urinating in the open because available toilets are filthy and unusable. This underscores the need for the government to provide running water in toilets that are being built. The situation in urban Karnataka is distressing. A survey of Bengaluru conducted by the non-profit Janaagraha last year found that the city was short by 1,100 public toilet complexes. Those that exist are rarely cleaned, don’t have doors or water, and stink. Apparently, only 10% of public toilets for men and 6% of them for women have flushes that work. Toilets are not provided with dustbins or washbasins and commodes are broken. This is the situation in pay-and-use toilets being run by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike. Each toilet brings in around Rs 1,000 per day. Why isn’t this money being used for upkeep of the toilets? It has been reported that many public toilets in the city are doubling up as godowns and even kitchens and bedrooms. Clearly, those who are operating these toilets are renting them out illegally, perhaps for illegal activities, too. This needs to stop now.

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ODF tag good, but it means little

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