The Broad Mind | The long and short of sanitation

by Esha Singh

Sanitation literally means provision of safe and hygienic toilets, water and sewage disposal services. A study conducted by World Bank’s ‘South Asia Water and Sanitation Unit’ estimated that India loses Rs 2,40000 crores annually due to lack of proper sanitation facilities. India, comes out nearly the bottom having the worse sanitation situation than many countries that are far poorer, including those in sub-Saharan Africa. We have close to 61.6 crore people (roughly half of our population) who defecate in the open. 73 percent of these are rural households. Open defecation is due to a number of factors of which unavailability, inadequacy and ignorance rank the highest. The sanitation challenge thus is not just about building a toilet. There are multiple dimensions with which one can address the sanitation challenge. No single or combination of few dimensions can solve the problem in entirety. Not only does it require a holistic approach, but also an intermingling of all disciplines to target the desired issue. If we just view it from an economic perspective, we might only consider how and where to make the toilets, while completely ignoring the issue of will and how people use it.

A few the dimensions of the sanitation problem are:

Economics: Economics is at the heart of the sanitation problem. It determines the demand and supply of toilet facilities. A few potential questions to consider are: Is sanitation a public or private good? ; How do we internalise the externality of sanitation related problems? or what are the various economic benefits of sanitation.

Finance:  Finance is sort of a sub determinant of the economics of sanitation. It deserves special attention as it determines how sanitation delivery happens in the real world. There are many questions that are potential areas of research for instance, what financial instruments can be used to achieve sustainability and maximize public benefits. Should we subsidse a toilet like under the NBA program; Provide a direct cash transfer with conditions; Link it to other social programs like health subsidies;  or Use self-help groups etc.

Anthropology: It is believed that early anthropological differences can determine how and what type of toilets people use. It determines choice and pattern. Like the tribal communities in Jharkhand have different practices than the tribes of Madhya Pradesh, just introducing them to toilets is not enough. Simply put it, it tells you that one size does not fit all.

Law: All across the world people follow the rule that one is not supposed to urinate in the public. Indians too follow this law once they are abroad. However, it won’t be difficult to find that even wealthy Indian at home have a low civic sense and practice rudimentary sanitary habits. Could law alone suffice to prevent public urination and defecation? Would public shame and police drives work in implementing the law?

Political Science: Politics and conflicted interest determine each and every delivery of public goods. Sometimes public funding is used to serve private interests and other times certain interest groups garner all the public money to serve only a section of the society.   In the views of Susan E Chaplin  “middle class has been able to monopolise what sanitation services the state has provided because the urban poor, despite their political participation, have not been able to exert sufficient pressure to force governments effectively implement policies designed to improve their living conditions.” So what is the political economy of sanitation? Who are the major stakeholder, what does the Power vs Interest grid look like? Can there be liberalisation in provision of this public good?

Sociology – An important factor is to determine what is acceptable and what is not. There exists a strong relationship between social progress and sanitation. Sanitation can serve as an important tool for change in public health, ecology, water quality, social deprivation, poverty and sustainable development. As a study it can determine what factors need to targeted first in order to address the sanitation issue of a community. Can we give a toilet to a Dalit while ignoring the house of a Brahmin in the same community because he/she is below the poverty line?

Health and Medicine – WHO reports that India looses 6 percent of  its GDP due to premature deaths and preventable illnesses , a majority of which are caused by lack of sanitation. Another study by Dean Spears from Princeton provides links between stunting in children and open defecation. An area of research that remains is that can we dedicate a portion of the health budget for sanitation and have pan India drives like polio for changing habits and to urge people to adopt sanitation as a way of life.

Science– Sanitation apart from toilets also encompasses a large problem of waste management. Human excreta consist of large number of pathogens and considering the scale of our existing waste management services, we are heavily polluting our environment and river bodies. Research in generating biogas, agriculture using human excreta as well as water conservation techniques at low cost are important to provide complete sanitation in India.

Psychology- An important component of the Sanitation challenge is to change attitudes. IEC or Information, education and communication is being progressively use to create awareness about the importance of toilets. Research would comprise not only of what has worked in the past, but also what can work better in spreading awareness among the poorest of the poor.

Education: Early education is essential as it forms a base for what children learn in their later life. There has been significant stress on promoting school wash campaigns and sensitising school students on the importance of sanitation. What remains missing is a sincere and dedicated effort to make it a regular part of the curriculum in every school and enough trainers who can practically teach this coursework.

Business and Technology: This area has not received much attention from a sanitation perspective. Lately many companies have come up with business models driven by technology which can serve as effective public private partnership or purely private models to deliver sanitation facilities at low cost.

Why my research is important?

This research will touch on multiple dimensions as of the sanitation problems discussing in detail some existing models and ongoing research, as well as discussing certain models and recommendations for what can work in an Indian context. The research would be subdivided into chapters each evaluating a discipline/dimension of the sanitation challenge to work as a tool for pedagogy and invoke further thought in these areas.

Esha Singh is a Takshashila Scholar.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.