Voices: What we need is more toilet education, rather than toilets

While building toilets goes some way into curbing open defacation, getting people to think beyond age old practices and habits is what needs to happen.


Most urban slums and rural parts of India are gravely afflicted with the problem of poor sanitation, especially widespread open defecation. It is more shameful than ironical that despite being one of the fastest growing economies of the world, a huge majority of our population is forced to do their business out in the open due to the lack of bare minimum facilities, or the lack of urgency on the matter. According to a report released by the United Nations in 2010, more people in India had access to mobile phones than they did to a toilet!

More shocking reports have followed with more embarrassing figures and these have been followed by a spate of sanitation campaigns led by big and small NGOs alike. Campaigns mainly targeted towards construction of big and small toilets, child-friendly toilets and economical toilets, environment-friendly and water-less toilets and so on. Funds have been spent in gigantic proportions to come up with innovative design models, catchy slogans, and television ad campaigns, but have any of these strategies really hit the spot? Despite all the national and international attention over the state of India’s toilets, have the results been satisfactory?

I can say this with the conviction of experience, that the mere construction of toilets is not enough to eliminate the problem of open defecation. This would be the same as expecting our parents to master the use of an iPad or Google Glass simply by handing it over to them—it is just half the solution to the problem.

Pic - SuSanA Secretariat | Flickr

Pic – SuSanA Secretariat | Flickr

From 2012-13, I was part of a public health project through which more than 200 toilets were constructed in 50 villages of a remote district in rural Rajasthan, India. While open defecation in these villages came down as a result of this initiative, it was hard to ignore a number of families who continued to defecate in the open, despite the presence of a toilet in their homes and despite several posters plastered on village buildings discouraging them to do so. When asked about the reason for this, they simply attributed it to habit and convenience.

What was happening here? Where did we go wrong? The villagers did not know – and they had not been told – why it was important for them to use a toilet. They did not have sufficient reason to give up their age-old practice of defecating in the open. Somebody came to their house, told them they needed a toilet, built a toilet for them, and went back, but nothing changed. This was the problem: our approach of curbing open defecation.

The gap between expectation and reality was as a result of a reflexive rather than conducive approach to tackle open defecation. One significant way to fill this gap, whose importance is often undermined, is through good-quality and continuous behaviour change communication (BCC).

Often there are cultural or religious practices that create misconceptions in the mind of beneficiaries, preventing them from using toilets. This kind of awareness generation and BCC will help the beneficiaries in gradual acceptance and recognition of the importance of toilets, thereby increasing toilet usage. If such an understanding is established, then even those who are unable to afford a toilet in their homes, will be motivated to seek the support of relevant government loans and schemes.

Hence, encouraging usage of facilities is equally, if not more important than the allocation of funds for construction of facilities.

As disgusted or squeamish we may be about it, we cannot afford to look the other way. The issue of open defecation affects us, living in our comfortable urban homes as much as it affects anyone living in a remote village of Rajasthan without a toilet in their home. Ultimately, we are citizens of one country and the issue we choose to support or ignore says a lot about our nation as a whole. If the shit that we face (quite literally) while seeing scores of men, women and children crouched over railway tracks or discrete fields, doesn’t move us or make us angry, than we do not deserve to be respected as a nation.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saloni is a public health professional with a flair for writing about issues which inspire fresh perspective and stimulate the mind. She has been working to advance the cause of good health for the rural and urban populations of the country since the past three years. Reading, challenging her own limits, and exploring unseen avenues are things that keep her going for her place under the sun. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saloni is a public health professional with a flair for writing about issues which inspire fresh perspective and stimulate the mind. She has been working to advance the cause of good health for the rural and urban populations of the country since the past three years. Reading, challenging her own limits, and exploring unseen avenues are things that keep her going for her place under the sun. more

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