As the 2014 elections approach, the media ought to tune in to issues like sanitation, and not spats between politicians.

In the run-up to the crucial 2014 general elections, who would have imagined that the humble toilet would be the object of competitive politics? Yet there it is, bang in the middle of a tussle between Jairam Ramesh, who claims ownership of the concept that toilets are more important than temples, and Narendra Modi, who has borrowed this without so much as a by-your-leave.

Perhaps both camps believe that the way to the aam aadmi’s (and particularly aurat’s) vote is linked to toilets. And they are not wrong. This column has argued on many occasions that sanitation is a woman’s issue. The absence of toilets is not some statistical game; it is a harsh and terrible reality that millions of women confront every day. Yet, successive governments place sanitation on the bottom of the rung of priorities.

If the vote of women is to count in the next elections, perhaps a “toilet meter” might be useful. How many toilets have Congress governments built in the States where they rule? What about Modi’s Gujarat? How does it measure up on the “toilet meter”?

I came across a fascinating blog (datastories.in) that takes data and turns it into maps that tell a story. Its Toilet Map of India (http://thne.ws/toiletmap) is something on which you can spend hours as you move your cursor through different parts of the country. You see unfolding before you a story, or rather many stories that are waiting to be told.

For instance, I tried to find a place that had 100 per cent households with toilets and I found it! It is Pumao Circle, in Tirap district, Arunachal Pradesh where 64.6 per cent of households had toilets in 2001 but by 2011 every single household had a toilet. How did this happen? That is a story worth investigating. Another place in Arunachal, Migging Circle, Upper Siang, has shown an even more dramatic jump: from 1.3 per cent of households with toilets in 2001 to 96.7 per cent by 2011.

While Pumao Circle is clearly an exception, there are many places across India where over 90 per cent households have toilets. They range from Leh in Ladakh with 90.4 per cent to Hnahthial in Lunglie district, Mizoram with 96.6 per cent to Sadulshahar, Ganganagar district, Rajasthan with 91.5 per cent. All along the western coast of India, starting with the southern part of Maharashtra down to Kerala, the percentages are high. Yet predictably as you go inland and north, towards Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, UP, the percentages are shockingly low. In Sihawai, Sidhi district, MP, only 4.4 per cent households have toilets; in Barhait, Sahibganj district, Jharkhand, only 6.5 per cent; in Pothia, Kishanganj district, Bihar, only 6.7 per cent; in Tarabganj, Gonda district, UP only 8.4 per cent (down from 11 per cent in 2001) and in Kantamai, Baudh district, Orissa, only 3.8 per cent. Even Modi’s Gujarat rarely crosses the halfway point with places like Detroj-Rampur in Ahmedabad district with only 26.2 per cent households having toilets and Nasvadi in Vadodara district with 10.2 per cent.

I dwell on these statistics because that is what the media should discuss rather than the spat between two politicians. Why is so much of India toilet-less? Is it because the ones worst affected are women and they have no voice? Even where toilets are being built, are women being consulted? Or does the man of the house decide where and what type of toilet will be built. Have women any say in location and design? What about community toilets, who looks after them, who controls access, who determines location? Will there be borders and segregation of community toilets?

Toilet talk might not determine the outcome of the 2014 election. But it is becoming increasingly evident that at the panchayat and municipal level, this is an important issue. People, and particularly women, are forming political judgments not just on the basis of caste and community but on the basis of delivery of basic services like water and sanitation. So instead of rhetoric, the political spin-doctors would get a more accurate picture of their chances if they looked at the “toilet meter”. You never know: the humble toilet might yet determine the direction of our politics.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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