To respond to nature’s call in nature’s own surroundings is not a particularly attractive practice. Poverty, resulting in low standards of living, is one of the reasons behind this practice in India. Strategies to change the situation have been applied with some seriousness only since 2000. It can always be asked why such an unsafe, undignified and embarrassing practice has been allowed to continue for so long, especially in an India reported to be growing in prosperity. Even the latest figures fail to reassure — 28,000 gram panchayats alone among 2.4 lakh in the country can boast a latrine for every house. Obviously, the poor figures are not just the result of poverty; ingrained habit has a major role to play too. Traditional ideas of cleanliness, based on ancient premises of exclusivity, ignore the indignity of exposure during an intensely private act. Whatever is ‘unclean’ should be evacuated far from the cooking and living quarters. Indians have always proved obstinate where such received notions are concerned.
If the mindset cannot be changed then incentives have to be held back. The Bihar government has apparently decided to follow this principle by tying up the building of houses under the Indira Awas Yojana with the compulsory construction of attached latrines with help from the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme. No latrine, no new house. The Union rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, has suggested that all states follow this example. Even though states such as Maharashtra and Kerala are doing fairly well on the sanitation scale, a state like West Bengal has just 1,077 ‘clean’ villages out of a total of 3,352. Obviously, there have been failures at many levels. Governments, whether at the Centre or in the states, did not consider proper sanitation and sanitary habits a priority for a long time or it could have developed its strategies earlier. Sanitary habits and self-awareness are also results of education; therefore defecating in the open also marks a failure of governments in another direction. It is a good thing that Mr Ramesh and state governments are giving the problem attention. But the practice is not contained within rural India. One of the most unnerving sights in Indian cities and towns is that of open defecation. The reasons for this as well as its correctives must be given equal attention.