The article, “The battle for toilets and minds” (June 9), brings out some astonishing facts and things about toilet use in rural India in addition to highlighting the need for proactive initiatives to change mindsets. It is also a reflection of government-sponsored sanitation programmes, where the result is measured only in terms of quantity (number of latrines). While coverage and numbers are important, what is more important is what happens before and after construction. Before construction commences, there should be an initiative to educate the target population. After construction, there should be follow-up measures to assess if utilisation is on target.
Another important factor is adaptability. Some years ago there was a drive to build dry latrines in Kerala, which did not succeed. This is because water forms an integral part of sanitation habits in Kerala.
Finally, the article deals with the “front end” of the toilet problem. There is also a “back end” — how sewage is treated and disposed of. Without scientific treatment of sewage, there is not much difference between using a toilet and practising open defecation. Unfortunately, septic tanks or centralised treatment facilities are nowhere in the scheme of things. Government-sponsored schemes usually use pit latrines, which in turn pollute water sources.
The State government is accountable too for its failure to address the issue. As an immediate measure, the government should use the services of NGOs to propagate and create awareness about the need for safe sanitation and the resultant health benefits.
The authorities should also examine the evolution of relatively better sanitation in South India, which took years to take shape. At the outset, households began putting up pit models with wooden planks across the pits — where each pit had an open roof and fencing using palm leaves for walls. It was a capital- saving method but required periodic renovation. Later, the local administration initiated assistance in having septic tank-based models. In North India, these methods can be adopted with changes like plastic boards for side walls.
John Keay, in his extremely readable Into India, describes a train journey through the lush countryside of Punjab where he was shocked and disgusted to see “a row of bare ******* lining the track and crouching figures deep in the corn fields. With the regularity of clockwork the bowels of the nation are on the move.” Keay observes it is more to do with the mindset and habit of many an Indian. “If there was a lavatory, no one would use it. It is more pleasant and more correct to squat with your friends as the sun rises and the train rumbles by.”
The Prime Minister could well succeed in his stupendous promise of providing a toilet for every household in the nation. But can he bring out an emotional change in the habitual mindset? It could be easy to take the horse to the water, but not so to make it drink.