Despite rapid technological progress and economic growth, close to 900 million people the world over do not use drinking water from improved sources and over 2.6 billion lack access to decent sanitation facilities. This indefensible public failing, which is conspicuous in the developing world, comes with tremendous economic and social costs. Safe drinking water and basic sanitation, as United Nations organisations have often emphasised, help prevent water-related diseases. Specifically when it comes to diarrhoea, which kills 1.6 million annually, improved water supply reduces morbidity by 20 per cent while improved sanitation cuts it by 37.5 per cent. The indirect benefits of providing access to drinking water to households, such as the time saved by women and children — who are often carriers of this precious commodity from source — are reflected, for example, in better school attendance. The debilitating effect of the lack of sanitation facilities is seldom appreciated. A World Bank study placed the total economic impact of inadequate sanitation in India at Rs.2.44 trillion (6.4 per cent of India's GDP in 2006). Three ongoing UN initiatives spotlight the importance of water and sanitation: the Millennium Development Goals, the Water for Life Decade (2005-2015), and the annual World Water Day (March 22) which had “Water for Cities” as the theme this year.

India, its urban areas included, is a laggard, especially in sanitation. More than 37 per cent of urban India's human excreta is unsafely disposed of, posing significant health hazards. The country is also home to the world's largest number of persons who defecate in the open (665 million persons of a global total of 1.1 billion). Shockingly, 4,66,853 elementary schools did not have toilet facilities, going by the data for 2009. The crisis looming over urban India is best revealed by a central government survey between December 2009 and March 2010. In this exercise, which ranked the 423 class-I cities according to metrics set by the National Urban Sanitation Policy, not a single one was eligible to be in the top slot of a “green city” (which needed to score at least 90 per cent) and only four were “blue cities” (67 per cent to 90 per cent). With 189 cities categorised as “red” (less than 33 per cent), and the remaining 230 in the “black” zone, it is evident that India has a long way to go in providing this basic infrastructure, which not only offers minimum dignity to life but is the elementary requirement for a healthy society. High economic growth rates, even if they are sustained, do not such a society make.

More In: Editorial | Opinion