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Spot observation: 40% to 100% open defecation across 10 rural and urban clusters

By Bharat Dogra* 

The recent emphasis of the sanitation campaign particularly the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM Rural and SBM Urban) on achieving ODF (Open Defecation Free) status in villages and slums has led to varying levels of success in various places. On the other hand we have situations close to complete success but on the other hand we also have situation close to almost complete failure or very limited success.
One important question now is -- what is to be the next step in areas where open defecation still exists to a large extent -- say somewhere between 40 to 100%. In some entire panchayats open defecation may not be so high but in particular hamlets of these panchayats more likely to be inhabited by the weaker sections such a situation may exist. Anyone familiar with the real sanitation situation would readily agree that there are tens of thousands of such rural and urban settlements.
Recently this writer visited about 10 such rural and urban clusters where the extent of open defecation was between 40 and 100%. I tried to find out that if the failure had been due to the people not giving adequate priority to having toilets. 
In 8 out of 10 settlements I found that people gave very high priority to having toilets as they were facing a lot of problems due to open defecation. In one village in fact two women had died due to snake bites at the time of open defecation. 
In some rural and urban settlements women reported other serious safety issues also related to open defecation. In the remaining two settlements also toilets were a priority, but not to the same extent as in the other eight. 
This was because the people here are burdened with other such serious problems that while open defecation here too is a serious problem and they need toilets, but in terms of their top priorities they may not include toilets.
Here we do not go into the details of the reasons why despite the felt needs of the people for toilets and despite recent government campaigns many people still do not have toilets. Of course some of the failure is due to the poor construction of toilets but there are other reasons too. However the larger question is regarding the future development strategy in terms of sanitation.
In several Delhi urban settlements, it is taken for granted that inadequate public toilets will meet the needs of people these meant to cover
There are rural settlements in which the money for toilets has been spent but open defecation continues. Now these households are listed as beneficiaries already of SBM and hence it is unlikely that any help for toilet construction will come their way in the near future.
There was over-reporting earlier at the time of declaring ODF in many places, and until the reality is recognized it is unlikely that the government will start any new drive for toilet construction.
However what can be done with the help of voluntary organizations which have experience in sanitation is that they should very honestly make an assessment of the real situation and problems and then try to introduce ODF successfully in the case of just about a dozen households who presently resort to open defecation, taking care of all the problems that were highlighted in their assessment. This can be done at a number of places carefully. The learning from these places can then become the basis of a bigger intervention.
In several urban settlements including in Delhi, it is being taken for granted that the very inadequate public toilets are able to meet the needs of people these are meant to cover. Here too there is need for careful assessment and small-scale but careful interventions to meet needs of people in such a way that there can be learning for bigger interventions later.
Unless such efforts continue to be made, the unmet sanitation needs of many people will be pushed under the cover of exaggerated statistics of what has been achieved. We must have realistic information regarding those left out and what can be done, should be done on a continuing basis in more careful ways for them, even if these are small efforts.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Protecting Earth for Children”, “Man over Machine” and “When the Two Streams Met”

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