Vigorously pushing the agenda of clean drinking water and sanitation, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh on Tuesday said investment in these sectors is as important as investing in defence.

“Investment in (drinking) water supply and sanitation is a matter of urgent priority. It is as important as investing in defence,” Mr. Ramesh, who is also the in-charge of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said.

“You can invest in missiles and tanks, in aircraft, but if you don’t have clean drinking water, if you don’t have sanitation, then the population is not going to be healthy.

“The more we invest in clean drinking water, the more we invest in sanitation, the better health, people will have,” he told reporters after the second meeting of the National Drinking Water and Sanitation Council here.

On the idea of utilising the service of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers affiliated to NRHM to promote health awareness, Mr. Ramesh said, “This is a source that we should tap into in order to promote greater awareness and sensitivity to hygiene and sanitation issues...Ultimately there is no distinction between health and sanitation. Better sanitation leads to improved health.”

An ASHA worker is a village woman, preferably in the age group of 25 to 45 years, trained in the area of health.

Mr. Ramesh, whose remarks that “women demand mobile phones, they are not demanding toilets” created a controversy last week, said the government is chalking out a plan to take the help of eight lakh women volunteers, affiliated to NRHM, to promote awareness on sanitation.

There are eight lakh ASHA volunteers who are working in six lakh villages, Mr. Ramesh said.

Citing the outbreak of water-borne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea and cancer risks from arsenic in drinking water in several places, the minister said, “One of the mistakes we have made is to look at health, water supply and sanitation as separate sectors.”

“There is no distinction between health, water supply and sanitation...Cleaner the water, safer the sanitation and healthier the population,” he said.

Observing that arsenic the “single biggest issue” in water quality, Mr. Ramesh said water quality will be the focus of the ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation when it gets additional resources in the upcoming Union Budget.

Arsenic has been found large parts of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar, he said.

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