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‘Tall’ toilet plan raises brows

New Delhi, Aug. 23: The Centre has tall plans of making India open defecation-free by 2019 and has asked states to ensure toilets for all, but sanitation experts are sceptical whether so much can be done in five years.

Pankaj Jain, the drinking water and sanitation secretary, has written to chief secretaries of all states that the Modi regime is committed to ringing in a “Swachh Bharat” by 2019, which marks Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

In his letter last week, Jain has listed steps such as enabling construction of individual and community latrines for BPL families and facilitating micro-finance or priority sector loans to households not covered under any government scheme for installing latrines. He has also asked states to ensure piped water for every household.

In another letter, Christina Kujur, the under secretary in the ministry, has asked state secretaries in charge of sanitation to explore the option of using bio-digester technology — it uses bacteria to convert waste into odourless compost — for disposal of excreta.

Next week, the ministry will review ongoing sanitation schemes with state secretaries in charge of rural sanitation.

The flagship scheme is the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, which was launched in 1999 and got its present name in 2011. Under this scheme, each beneficiary is allotted around Rs 10,000 to build a toilet. This scheme will be re-christened as the “Swachh Bharat” scheme.

The “Swachh Bharat” scheme’s 2019 target appears ambitious as only 32 per cent of 167 million rural households have access to toilets, according to data provided by the 2011 census (see chart).

The overall sanitation coverage — rural and urban — is about 50 per cent. This means 123 million of the country’s 246 million households do not have access to sanitation. Of the 2.4 lakh gram panchayats, only 28,000 are “nirmal” gram panchayats (open defecation-free).

The coverage is worse among marginalised sections such as the Dalits and the tribals, of whom only 23 per cent and 16 per cent respectively have access to sanitation.

Apart from availability of water, one factor contributing to poor sanitation is cultural — many people, chiefly in rural areas, consider it inauspicious to have toilets in the house and would prefer to go out for their ablutions. This would have to be addressed by community involvement and sensitisation.

Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International that promotes sanitation, said if the Centre’s plans were to materialise, they would have to be backed by a concrete action plan to involve volunteers and allow bank credit.

He is sceptical of the proposal for bio-digester toilets because of the high cost of the equipment that use bacteria to digest waste and convert it to normal odourless compost.

However, the letter from the sanitation ministry suggests that states would provide additional funds required to install bio-digester facilities.

The Defence Research Development Organisation developed bio-digester toilets for use by the army in high-altitude areas. The technology, used in trains, tourist houseboats and in islands such as Lakshadweep, is self-sustaining as bacteria survive and multiply without oxygen inside a bio-tank.

According to Sanjay Agrawal, the managing director of CBS Technology that manufactures bio-digesters, installation of such a toilet for a family of five persons would cost between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh.

“Going by the involvement of state governments in sanitation programmes, I do not think they would like to bear costs of Rs 60,000 per toilet per household. Nor will any beneficiary be interested in such bio-digesters,” Pathak said.

Nafisa Barot, the executive director of Ahmedabad-based NGO Utthan that works in the sanitation sector, said the government had launched the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999 to eradicate open defecation by 2017. But by 2011, the rural area coverage was only 32 per cent.

Barot said 80 per cent toilets built under government programmes were not used. “The facilities are sub-standard. People use toilets for storing purposes,” she said.

To achieve the “Swachh Bharat” target, stress would have to be laid on community sensitisation, water facilities in each habitation and better quality toilets, she said.