Absence of sanitation facilities, in our villages and in our schools, is a matter of national shame.

Shame, said the Prime Minister, that 42 per cent of Indian children are malnourished. Shame, said the Supreme Court, that despite the Right to Education, thousands of children, and particularly girls, are dropping out of school because there are no toilets. Shame, said Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development, calling the absence of sanitation “the biggest blot on the human development portfolio in India.”

Yes, the lack of sanitation, the fact that one of out every two Indians is forced to defecate in the open, is a very good reason why we as a nation should be ashamed. Ramesh acknowledges that out of six lakh villages in India, hardly 25,000 are free from open defecation.

Never-ending story

Why does this story not change? India has made considerable progress in supplying water, although there are still vast areas where people have no access to potable water, where women have to walk miles to fetch a few litres of water. In one of the more evocative descriptions in a recent book, Rising by Ashoke Chatterjee, on the work of a remarkable women's organisation in Gujarat called Utthan, we read about little girls tied to ropes being lowered into a deep well with a little bit of muddy water at the bottom. Despite the risk, their mothers wait till the child has managed to collect a small bowl of that water before she is pulled up.

But the absence of sanitation is even more widespread. It is a burden that women especially must carry. There is no place for them, literally, to answer “the call of nature”, as polite company prefers to refer to something that should be called by its real name — defecation and urination. Has sanitation been routinely neglected because it affects women more than men? If you read the handful of success stories of sanitation schemes, they are usually those where women have been involved.

But here I want to address specifically the absence of sanitary facilities in schools. What is the point of giving our children the Right to Education, if something as basic as toilets are not available in most schools? How can we expect women's literacy rate to improve if young girls feel embarrassed to be in school after puberty because there are no toilets?

There are budgets for building toilets. The Government of India has launched a Total Sanitation Campaign with the ambitious aim of achieving “Total Sanitation”, whatever that means, by this year, 2012. Yet, either the funds available are not spent on building toilets, or if toilets are built, they become unusable within a short time because there is no water, or they get vandalised. I can recall visiting a shining new school building in a village in Bihar where children were attending school and were given the mid-day meal. But the brand new toilets built with government money had already been vandalised. The doors to the cubicles were stolen, the toilet pans were shattered and all the taps had disappeared. Children had to run to their homes if they wanted to take a toilet break. Not surprisingly, adolescent girls would simply drop out, or not attend school for several days each month.

Forced to act

The Supreme Court has been forced to intervene on the issue. It is amazing how many times the most basic aspects of development and governance get traction only because the apex court demands action. The court has given all states up to February 28 to build temporary toilets in all schools and permanent ones by March 31. And it has rightly refused to entertain any excuses. So far, only four states — Bihar, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Arunachal Pradesh — have managed to meet 90 per cent of the target. Maharashtra, one of the richer states in this country, is shockingly lax with thousands of schools where there are no toilets for girls and some with no toilets at all.

Equally worrying is the fact that sanitation standards are not satisfactory even in the better-off schools where lack of funds cannot be an excuse. A survey of 304 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) schools revealed that 265 of them were below par in sanitation standards. In fact, only four schools got the ‘green' certification that represents excellent standards and another 35 came in the good and fair category. If such surveys were conducted in all schools in our cities, it is more than likely that the figures would be similar.

The toilet story is the real story of India. We constantly glorify our achievements, such as a good economic growth rate, but feel no sense of shame that our children are dying from lack of food and that our girls and women have to face the daily indignity of life without toilets.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com