The revival of the issue of >toilets in schools has brought to the fore a discussion that has for long existed among educationists, with varying positions occupying centre stage at different times. A couple of decades ago, when the deplorable state of education began to be noticed, the importance of toilets was highlighted, and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) — the government’s flagship programme for universalisation of elementary education — included a specific provision for separate toilets for girls and boys. But soon after, a shift in focus to learning outcomes made toilets a dirty word as far as education was concerned, so much so that the emphasis on infrastructure, and toilets in particular, was held almost responsible for taking attention away from “learning.” Arguments were made that no correlation could be found between the presence of toilets and learning levels of children in school; therefore toilets were an unnecessary expense. Others claimed that since most poor rural children did not have toilets at home, they would not miss them in school either. What they needed was education, not toilets. The lack of sanitary habits among people who are not used to toilets and the issue of who would keep the toilets clean have also been part of the ongoing debate.
The need for functional toilets So, where do we stand on these issues today and what can we expect from the Human Resource Development Ministry as it tries to fulfil Narendra Modi’s promises made on Independence Day? Perhaps a good place to start is by looking at some facts related to the provisioning of toilets, their use and cleanliness, and where the responsibility for the availability and functioning of toilets lies.
As mandated by the Right to Education Act, all children are required to spend six hours in school every day. During this period they would want to use the toilets. Irrespective of how and where they relieve themselves when at home, if the school does not have a functional toilet, they will need to go outside the school for their “bio-breaks.” The reality is that if they do leave the school, they are unlikely to return. Or if they are not allowed to leave, which is often the case for fear of the outcome mentioned above, they could end up soiling their clothes, for which they are likely to be penalised. A quick look at the complaints received by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (during 2010-2011, for instance) reveals that many complaints of corporal punishment were made because of this reason. Corporal punishment, like lack of toilets for girls, is a reason for dropouts.
In addition to all children needing toilets in schools, the teachers also need them. They are required to spend even longer hours in school to complete non-teaching work as well as prepare for classes. The lack of adequate toilets often necessitates the locking of toilets by teachers for their exclusive use. Among poor working conditions for teachers in schools, the lack of toilets is one, and probably contributes to teachers’ less than desired rate of attendance.
Despite the Act specifying separate toilets for boys and girls in each school, data from the District Information System for Education, 2013, shows that 10 per cent of elementary schools (nearly 2 lakh schools) still do not have functional toilets. In fact, in 2004, a civil writ petition (No (S) 631) was filed against the Delhi administration for the lack of toilets in schools, which resulted in the Supreme Court asking each State to submit affidavits on the status of toilets in their respective States. In early 2012, 18 State governments told the apex court in written affidavits signed by the highest-ranking bureaucrat in each of these States that they had met the requirement for toilets in accordance with RTE norms, or would do so by March 2012. In addition to the fact that this does not square up with the official data, if these 18 States have indeed met the norms as submitted in court, does it mean we can expect no further action on toilets in their jurisdictions?
There is, in fact, a great deal of ambiguity on whose responsibility it is to ensure functional toilets with adequate water facility in schools. Is it the HRD Ministry or the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) or the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) or all three?
The SSA has a provision for construction of toilets which ranges from Rs. 50,000 per toilet (Himachal Pradesh) to Rs. 70,000 per toilet (Jharkhand). The provision of sanitation facilities, however, is the responsibility of the MDWS. As a result, one finds a peculiar situation where scores of schools have constructed toilets — but without sanitation facilities or water supply. Their use, if at all, is naturally limited. What is not clear is who is responsible for ensuring convergence between these Ministries.
Minister for Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation Nitin Gadkari recently announced that toilets would be delinked from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. He announced that the amount allocated for the construction of individual toilets would be increased from Rs.10,000 to Rs. 15,000, for school toilets from Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 54,000, apart from an increase in the amount for construction of anganwadi toilets and community toilets. Does this mean these toilets will be provided water supply too? At the end of the day, if functional toilets do not exist in any given school, who will be held to account?
Keeping toilets clean Finally, there is the issue of keeping toilets clean. At present there is no provision in SSA for the cleaning of toilets. In fact, during a review of the SSA framework a couple of years ago, this issue was raised and hotly debated. But it was decided that in the interest of educating children about hygiene and sanitation, no other provision should be made. Instead, the children and teachers should be encouraged to keep the toilets clean. The reality, as we all know, is that teachers do not involve themselves in this enterprise. As a result, the toilets are either cleaned or not cleaned by children — or more precisely, they are cleaned by Dalit children because they can be coerced into doing what other children will refuse to do. If a clean and hygienic environment is to be provided, some children should not have to create it for others.
If Mr. Modi and the HRD Ministry are serious about toilets in schools, they will need to do a more comprehensive rethink of all that it involves. In addition to an adequate provision of funds cleaning, sanitation training, maintenance of toilets and other things, the issue of fixing accountability must be addressed. Else we will keep visiting the basic issues over and over again, reformulating strategies and recommissioning funds.
(Kiran Bhatty is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)