There are no ifs or buts here — only an and. The evidence suggests that the country has managed to achieve a near impossible target. In fact, India’s achievement will go a long way in the world meeting its Sustainable Development Goals of universal coverage to toilets and safe disposal of excreta. However, this success must be made sustainable — it must last. This is where the big risk lies. So, even as we take a moment to celebrate, we must not call off the toilet challenge. This is because there is still much to be done and much that can go wrong.
One, let’s be clear that slippages happen in all programmes. It will not be different here. So, even if toilets are built and even if people have started using them, this trend can reverse in no time. When reporters of the fortnightly magazine Down To Earth traversed different districts of the country, looking at toilets, they found good and bad news. In districts of Uttar Pradesh — an earlier laggard state — change was visible on the ground. There were toilets and people — particularly women — were using these and wanted more. But in Haryana, declared ODF in 2017, there were signs of people slipping back to old habits of open defecation. This, when this state had been particularly recognised for investing in changing the behaviour of the people. But toilets get broken, they are not accessible or people just go back to doing what they have done for generations.
Two, there is the issue of excreta disposal. The NARSS 2018-19 uses an inadequate and erroneous definition of “safe” — it defines safe disposal if the toilet is connected to a septic tank with a soak pit, a single- or double-leach pit, or a drain. The fact is that this is only the system for containing the excreta, not its disposal. It is estimated that the bulk of the 100 million toilets built in rural India are either single- or twin-pit latrines — in other words, people defecate into a pit, which is emptied and then reused. There is no information where the excreta from the empty pit ends up — in waterbodies, drains, or fields. It could well be argued that the toilets are still new and so there is still no faecal matter to be disposed of or emptied. But it will happen. And, let’s be clear, if this excreta is not managed, it will end up adding to the health burden — the toilet will not be the source of contamination, but soil and water contamination will take away the health gains.
Thirdly, there is the issue of credibility of the assessments — crucial to know that we are on track. Currently, all studies are commissioned by the project funders or its proponent ministry. I have no reason to doubt the methodology or results of these massive surveys. But it is also fair to say that nothing in India can ever be so black or white — the over 99 per cent success story just does not square with the black, grey and white reality of the country that we all know. So, there is reason to ask for differently done assessments by many more institutions and with many more colours. Because there is one fact that even our good news toilet story must remember: If we all turn into cheerleaders then there will be no team to cheer.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment. email@example.com. Twitter: @sunitanar