New Delhi, March 26: Hundreds of young girls in a large cluster of households near Jahangirpuri in northeast Delhi have silently adopted a rule — skip dinner to avoid using a crowded public toilet in the mornings.
In Dhulagori village in Howrah, 15-year-old Aklima Khatun misses school during her menstrual periods each month — not because of physical discomfort, but to avoid changing sanitary napkins in the school toilet.
In Varanasi, where the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is fighting AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal in the 2014 general election, Suman, an activist with a women’s organisation called Mahila Jagriti Samiti, wants the next government — whoever forms it — to place sanitation high on its priority list.
India launched a plan named the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) in 1999 to provide sanitation to cover the entire population, but an estimated 620 million people are still forced to defecate in the open, according to activists campaigning for the right to sanitation.
“It’s a big shame that we still have to run this campaign,” said Rajesh Upadhyay, national convener of the right to sanitation campaign in India.
While the NBA has helped install tens of millions of toilets in households and schools across the country, the lack of water or sewage facilities and poor maintenance often make them unusable.
“Toilets are only showpieces in Dhulagori High School,” said Kakali Chakraborty, secretary of the Mahila Samiti in Dhulagori, Khatun’s village.
Khatun, Chakraborty said, skips school at least five days every month during her menstrual periods. The school has two toilets but neither has piped water.
“There is this huge silence over the link between good sanitation and menstrual hygiene management,” said Sudha Goparaju, an activist from Hyderabad. “No one talks about what is needed to resolve difficulties that girls and women face.”
In the cluster of households near Delhi’s Jahangirpuri locality, hundreds of girls skip dinner day after day to avoid using the public toilet in the morning hours, which they consider an ignominy.
The colony has about 60,000 residents and 96 toilet seats in the public facilities. “Girls and some women too prefer to use toilets in the evenings when there is less rush,” said Veermati, a community leader.
About 400 social activists and community leaders from across the country concluded a two-day conclave on the right to sanitation yesterday, calling on all political parties to support sanitation in a “comprehensive, deliberate, and non-compromising manner”.
“We want the government to focus on all aspects of sanitation — water supply, regular management and safe disposal of the waste,” said Murali Ramisetty, an activist with the Freshwater Action Network South Asia, a non-government organisation.
“There are huge health costs to inadequate sanitation,” Ramisetty said. Health economists have estimated that poor sanitation costs India about $53 billion, or about 6.4 per cent of India’s gross domestic product in 2006, when the last such estimate was done.
The right to sanitation campaign officials estimate that about 1,000 children die in India from various illnesses, including diarrhoeal diseases, linked to poor sanitation.
Poor sanitation services also make girls and women vulnerable to sexual assaults. “We’ve seen young girls and women become victims of sexual assaults when they’ve gone into fields,” Suman said.
According to the 2011 census data, the national sanitation coverage was 49 per cent but the rural sanitation coverage is just 31 per cent. The coverage is worse among the marginalised sections like Dalits (23 per cent) and tribals (16 per cent).
The central government has started the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan scheme under which it gives Rs 4,500 to a household to set up a latrine. “This is not enough to set up a facility. Poor people do not take interest in this scheme,” Nafisa Barot, an activist from Gujarat, said.