The overemphasis on building toilets without water supply is putting sanitation workers at great risk.

Written by Pragya Akhilesh

In India, the toilet construction spree has reduced open defecation drastically, yet around half a billion people defecate in the open, even after a monumental rise in the number of toilets in India. While the idea of building an efficient sanitary infrastructure to eradicate open defecation and dry latrines has been successful on paper, the reality is that more emphasis is given on building infrastructure and tagging a district as “open-defecation free” than the maintenance of toilets, when both are equally important and interlinked. Since there is no holistic measure of maintenance of infrastructure, the sanitation workers are left exploited and abused. The lack of water supply and constricted running hours turn these toilets into no more than dry latrines, and the sanitation workers then have to dispose of the waste in secret in a nearby compound.

In urban settlements, sanitation workers responsible for cleaning public toilets live in fear of suspension if they refuse to manually scavenge piles of human excreta. As toilets routinely become dry latrines, the claim of eradication of manual scavenging of the state governments are fraudulent to both the toilet “cleaners” and the toilet “users”. We also forget that cleaners are also users and no emphasis is given to the right to sanitation of the sanitation worker.

Women are beaten up, harassed and physically abused in India not only when they are forced to manually scavenge and scrap the toilets, but also when they are on the way to reach these toilets. Sarita (name changed), a sanitation worker from Banthla, Uttar Pradesh was beaten up and raped inside a half-constructed toilet compound by two men urinating nearby.

The social awareness around construction of the toilets does not involve an education about who maintains these toilets and what goes into doing so. All over India, thousands of toilets remain under construction for many years, since the subsidies by the government to construct these toilets come in many instalments.

Moreover, in these subsidies, there is no holistic coverage of the cost of laying a sewer which means that the pits have to be cleaned at regular intervals. It is only in the last few years that the government has been building twin-pit toilets but this is also after a substantial number of single-pit toilets have already been built. There is no integrated record of how many single-pit latrines are still manually being scavenged on recorded intervals. This, again highlights the loophole in keeping a record of “what happens after the construction of a toilet”.

Another aspect is there that there is lack of understanding when it comes to the part of actual toilet usage. In rural areas, women refrain from using the community toilets because they have to walk unaccompanied to them, which puts them at as much risk as walking to fields for open defecation. Again, since the community toilets are common hotspots for infections, women prefer to defecate in the open. Men, too, tend to avoid stinking urinals.

In the last ten years, over 700 people have died in septic tanks in India while the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) only holds a record of 631 people. Unmanaged toilets certainly pose grave risks — that is the truth about the sanitation crisis in India, with or without toilets.

Pragya Akhilesh is the National Convener of Rehabilitation Research Initiative and a senior researcher on minority community rights with DASAM, India

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