Debating India

Wanted: a sanitation movement

Wednesday 12 April 2006

Safe drinking water and sanitation are critical determinants of public health. Together, they can significantly reduce the burden of communicable diseases. The Centre has over the years expanded budgetary support for water and sanitation schemes but the unfinished task, particularly in sanitation, is enormous. It is unlikely that an incremental increase in funding will make a dramatic difference. Although there is a general feeling of optimism and confidence produced by positive economic growth indicators, there is also a deep sense of disappointment that total sanitation may not be achieved even in the next 10 years. The policy approach appears to rely too heavily on budgetary allocations as a measure of effective intervention, and gives inadequate importance to accelerated targets, efficiency, and outcomes. In its mid-term appraisal of the Tenth Plan (2002-07), the Planning Commission says only 17 per cent of rural households have access to improved sanitation while in the urban areas, nearly 40 per cent of households are deprived; 70 per cent of the population has no access to hygienic toilets. The importance of sanitation as a genuine indicator of development cannot be overemphasised. At the Third World Water Forum held in Kyoto three years ago, policymakers acknowledged the link between reduced diarrhoea risk and good sanitation and debated the best ways to encourage households to install toilets. Over the last half decade, India has been running a Total Sanitation Campaign in the rural areas, but this falls short of a comprehensive response to the challenge. The Planning Commission, which advocates a mission mode approach, notes that even by 2010 the coverage may extend only to a 100 million dwelling units. That will still leave millions without access to a toilet inside the house.

It is inconceivable that a reduction in public health crises such as cholera and typhoid outbreaks can be brought about without attending to the primary task of providing mass housing, a hygienic environment, safe drinking water, and sanitation. Not enough attention is being paid to sanitation (and water supply) as the foundation of all health services. Most States have pursued weak policies in this area and neglected the elected local governments, giving them a low stake in improving the sanitation infrastructure. Full sanitation is not available even in metropolitan cities and their growing suburbs. Some scholars hold that urban India has failed in this sphere because the vocal and relatively affluent middle class that complains of dirty streets and lack of hygiene among the poor, does not demand sanitation for all; it is endowed with the financial capability to purchase clean water and healthcare; and it also has access to the meagre sewerage infrastructure. It does not, therefore, perceive a crisis. Neither have the trade unions felt that sanitation, a basic human need, deserves their vocal support. Only with a change of attitude can speedy progress be made in this crucial area.

See online : The Hindu

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