At a time when open defecation remains something of a taboo subject and is seldom discussed in public, it is commendable that Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the spotlight on the practice while addressing the nation on August 15 and brought the discourse straight into lakhs of drawing rooms. Soon after he urged the corporate sector to “prioritise the provision of toilets in schools” under corporate social responsibility programmes, the social movement is slowly gaining traction. Two companies — Tata Consultancy Services and Bharti Enterprises — have committed themselves to playing their part in achieving the monumental task of ensuring that all schools in the country have toilets for boys and girls in a year’s time. Hindustan Zinc Limited has increased by 10,000 the number of toilets it would build in villages in three districts of Rajasthan; its earlier target number was 30,000. There is an urgent need for many more companies to follow suit quickly. But building toilets alone would achieve next to nothing if providing access to water does not go hand in hand with it. That over 620 million people in India still defecate in the open is at once a shameful and disgusting statistic. The ignominy becomes all the more striking as India has the most number of people in the world continuing with this abhorrent practice; Indonesia is a far second with 54 million people doing that. That Bangladesh reduced the prevalence from 34 per cent in 1990 to 3 per cent in 2012 is a potent reminder that the war against open defecation has to be won in double quick time. This can be achieved only if building toilets, both in schools and in households, continues to be a priority for the government and every other sector in the country.
The ramifications of open defecation are too grim to be ignored. Many of the water-borne diseases — cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, Hepatitis A, typhoid and polio — are linked to open defecation. Hence, it is no coincidence that nearly 14 per cent (over 300,000) of deaths among children in India under five years of age are caused by diarrhoea-related diseases; diarrhoea is the second biggest killer in this age group. Also, frequent diarrhoeal events result in malnutrition and, in turn, stunting in children under five. The absence of toilets in schools is one of the reasons why girls drop out of the system at an early age. There is a huge economic cost, too. According to a document of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, the economic impact of poor sanitation is about Rs.2.4 trillion (which represented 6.4 per cent of India’s GDP in 2006). It is important to remember that building toilets without building awareness and changing the mindset, would still yield poor results.