"How do we keep toilets clean with no sanitary workers?" asks the frustrated headmaster of a government higher secondary school in Karur.

“I avoid it as much as possible and try to hold on till the end of the day when I can finally go home,” says Anusha Ravi (name changed), a class VIII student in a private school, referring to her school toilet. She is not alone. School children across the board seem to avoid using toilets at school because they “stink, the taps are broken, there are no buckets and sometimes they are even unsafe.”

A recent evaluation of government primary and upper-primary schools found 42 schools (out 1,200 schools in the Tiruchi zone) faring well in enrolment, student-teacher attendance, teaching quality and maintenance of infrastructure. Among the remaining schools, however, the issue of toilets and their maintenance is a grey area.

“How do we keep toilets clean with no sanitary workers?” asks the frustrated headmaster of a government higher secondary school in Karur. He claims that the workers often demand more than Rs. 500 for cleaning and that the school cannot spend so much on just toilets. He also holds the students equally responsible. “Our village is so poor that there are no toilets in anybody’s house and the students are still unaccustomed to using a closed toilet or flushing it with water,” he says.

When Rani Muralidharan, Immediate Past President, Rotary Club of Tiruchi Shakthi, visited the government higher secondary school at Siruganur, she found decent toilet blocks for the boys and the teachers, but only two toilets for all of the 250 girls in the school. “The girls’ toilets were so far away from the main block, in a state of disrepair and were surrounded by thick undergrowth making it unsafe for women ,” she recalls. With the funds they raised, the club constructed six toilets for the girls right next to the boys’ toilets and equipped them with an in-built incinerator for disposing sanitary napkins. “We will be maintaining the toilets for a year, after which the students will take over the maintenance,” she says.

However, the government claims to be working towards implementing the Supreme Court directive on providing clean toilets at all schools by March 31, 2013: “Five thousand vacancies for sanitary workers in government schools have been filled just two months ago,” says P. Jeyakumar, Additional Chief Education Officer, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Pointing out that all schools must have one toilet per 50 students, Mr. Jeyakumar says the government provides the schools with maintenance grants and/ or school grants to cover the expenses involved in maintaining the toilets.

Despite assurances from the State, the condition of toilets in many schools remains dismal and the situation is not restricted to government schools. Sharada Murali (name changed) claims that her children, studying at reputed private schools, have been frequently developing urinary tract infections and bouts of constipation because they refuse to use the toilets at school. “Neither does the school follow up on individual complaints about the condition of the toilets, nor do they hold parent-teacher meetings where the issue can be raised,” she says, “and now I have just resigned to telling my children not to expect clean toilets outside the house.”