By Rashmi Saksena
In the dark of the night, two teenage sisters in a village in the Kalahandi region of Odisha, spoke to each other in whispers. Then they left their huts and started a trek in search of privacy. It was a bad time of the month for one sister and she just had to go to relieve herself and do the needful. She walked into death itself. As she squatted in the bushes she was bitten by a snake. By the time her sister could return to the cluster of huts and seek help it was too late. A young life felled because there was no toilet, leave alone in their hutment, not even in the village for common use.
The Odisha tale is not an isolated one. In the sands of Rajasthan that nestle rural dwellings, women find comfort in numbers when they have to answer nature’s call. But it is not danger proof. A village near Jaisalmer is still silent about an incident that took place several years ago. A new bride was being escorted by the women of the family for the pre sunrise ritual of relieving herself away from male eyes. The barren stretch of sand makes it difficult to find such a place. The new bride being shy strayed a bit further from the rest. She never returned. Some talk in hushed tones about a gang of men who abducted her. Others believe it was a pre planned get-away from a forced marriage by the girl and her paramour. But the real villain of the piece remains the absence of a latrine in village homes.
For the women ofBihar’s Shekwara village, the villain is District Water and Sanitation Committee. Using their Self Help Group acquired loan, the women of the village had 169 toilets constructed in homes. For the last one year the toilets remain unused and non-functional. The state government through the Committee has yet to reimburse its share of the cost of constructing the toilets. The construction of each toilet costs Rs 3500. According to the women they have been running pillar to post for reimbursement but an alleged tiff between the District Development Commissioner and the Executive Engineer is the hurdle. Seeing this, women from the adjoining Bara village who too want toilets, have stalled plans to use the Self Help Group money for the purpose. They are apprehensive about being able to pay back the bank loan in the absence of reimbursement from the government.
Is Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s budget( 2012-2013) proposal of increasing allocation for rural drinking water and sanitation put to end the indignity of women having to squat in the open for defecation? Mukherjee has proposed that the budgetary allocation for the above purpose be increased from Rs 11,000 crore in 2011-2012 to Rs 14,000 crore in 2012-13. This marks an increase of over 27 %. The rural sanitation programme has got a whopping increase of 133 per cent, up from Rs 1500 crore to Rs 3500 crore.
But this will not help meet the Government goal of eradicating open defecation by 2012. Under its flagship campaign on sanitation called Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) the Government has sanctioned projects in all rural districts building more than 57 million individual household sanitary latrines. But this still falls short of the estimated 119 million units to meet its 2012 goal. The first set of final data from census 2011 reveals that over half of Indian households (53.1%) do not have access to a basic need that is a toilet. Yet many more have TV and mobile phones. What has happened to our sense of priority? Why was the increase in allocations to TSC between fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2012 just 4%? Budgetary allocation for the sanitation programme accounts for a mere 0.02% of India’s GDP.
The answer may well be in the fact that open defecation is not a serious problem for men. For women on the other hand not only does it strip them of dignity, denies them privacy but is also a security threat. India accounts for 58% of the world’s population of open defecators. And women are the worst sufferers. They suffer because to ensure public gaze they have to go into the fields or other spaces away from habitation only before sunrise or sunset. During the day they suppress the call of nature often with painful consequences. This leads to urinary tract infection and also kidney problems. Poor access to toilets in rural India, as well as its urban slums, have made women work out ways to reduce the need to use them. This means eating less and drinking less water! Little wonder that women are using the self help groups in villages to demand toilets for themselves.
A review by the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi, of the TSC launched in 1999-2000 shows no correlation between the amount of funds being spent in a state and improvement there. According to the review no correlation was found between the coverage achieved and the amount of funds spent per state. For example, Himanchal Pradesh spent 36% of its approved funds meeting its target for the BPL households, but Bihar spent 28% and achieved just 43% of its target. On average, India spends R1,528 on each basic, low-cost toilet for the BPL households. However, states spend anywhere between R171 (Punjab) and R3,338 (Sikkim) per unit. Spending in many states slowed between 2009-10 and 2010-11. While some states such as Chhattisgarh and Kerala saw a decline of 38 percentage points,Biharand Karnataka spent more. To meet its target,Bihar will need to spend at seven times the current levels. In fact States were unable to use funds available under the TSC. Rs 27 billion for rural areas under the TSC remained unutilized in the last fiscal year. Twelve years into the government’s Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) there has been improvement, but at a slow rate. Although the number of rural households without toilets has dropped from 78% in 2001 to 27% as of 2 February 2012, usage remains a challenge.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has commented “Sanitation is the biggest blot on the human development portfolio in India as the sanitation situation is disastrous”. It is obvious that a lot is required to be done on this front if India is to meet the Millennium Development Goal on Sanitation. Goal 7 of the MDG’s calls on countries to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without sanitation facilities from 1990 level. Budget 2012-2013 aside, the women of India have a long wait ahead before they can answer the call of nature with dignity and in safety. (IPA Service)