A tough problem to flush away

A tough problem to flush away
Onlookers gathering on May 31 at the site where two teenage girls, who were answering nature's call, were raped and killed at Budaun district in Uttar Pradesh. Sanitation is a tough challenge as India's population keeps outgrowing the pace of toilet building and rural Indians prefer to defecate in the open.

NEW DELHI - It is a cliche to say that India is full of contradictions. But the fact that it can send rockets into space, produce billionaires who run global leviathans and explode nuclear devices while failing to build toilets is perhaps the starkest of them all.

The gang rape of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh on May 28 highlighted the dangers for women of having no toilet in their homes. The girls went out into the fields at night where they were raped and killed.

A joint World Health Organisation and Unicef report published last month said 597 million Indians, or 55 per cent of households in India, defecate in the open.

There are at least five implications.

First, it is a disgrace, an affront to human dignity. Travel on early morning trains and you flinch from the sight out the window: rows of exposed bottoms of squatting males lining the tracks as the train passes villages.

Second, open defecation gives children gastro-intestinal ailments which prevent them from retaining the nutrients in their food, leading to malnutrition.

Third, it is a massive health issue for everyone. The failure to remove human excreta leaves it within range of further human contact, causing disease. Absorbed into the earth, it also contaminates water sources.

Fourth, according to Unicef, 28 million Indian children have no toilet facilities in school. Not surprisingly, girls, when they start menstruating, drop out.

Finally, for women it is a dreadful daily scourge. When they venture out in the dark, men from the village can taunt them, flash torchlights at them through the crops where they crouch in the fields, or ambush and sexually assault them.

Despite all these problems, India has more mobile phones than toilets. The reason is that no government has made toilet-building a priority. This forms part of a wider picture of terrible sanitation. India's cities and towns are filthy. It took nothing less than the bubonic plague in the city of Surat in 1994 to make the municipal authorities improve sanitation.

Building toilets would not be easy even if the political will existed. The Urban Development Ministry's statistics for 2011 show that half of India's cities have no piped water or sewers. Even if they do, only 13 per cent of piped sewage is treated.

The beautiful Dal Lake in Srinagar has the city's raw sewage pumped into it. The "sacred" River Ganges receives almost 3,000 million litres of sewage every day from five cities that line its banks, most of it untreated.

The government has been building toilets since 1986. Yet three decades later, only 30 per cent of Indians have toilets. Corruption is partly responsible. Government funds for toilets are siphoned off on a colossal scale.

In truth, though, it is a daunting challenge. The 1.2 billion population keeps outgrowing the pace of toilet building. How do you build toilets in villages where there are no septic tanks, piped water or sewage pipes?

And we are talking about vast regions. Uttar Pradesh, for example, is the size of France. If it were a country, it would be the seventh biggest in the world in terms of population.

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