When Shubra Singh, State Project Commissioner for Rajasthan, made a grave appeal to the REI partners to help the government in setting up toilets, by sponsoring capital and/or operational costs, in the government schools, I was baffled. I wondered if she had gone berserk in bringing up apparently inapt  topic in an ICT forum. As one would expect almost all partners gave their nod with a scoff that was best left to interpretation. I must admit that I was one among those who gracefully ignored the request for I presumed it hardly concerned me , let alone my company. I now realize that I grossly belittled the gravity of the issue that she was attempting to address.I'm ashamed for my blissful ignorance and apathy.

Recently, as I was trying to gain a deeper understanding of reasons for dropouts in primary and secondary schools, I came across shocking observations, both anecdotal and statistical, that trace one of the primary reasons for girl dropouts to lack of toilets in schools. A recent report claims that more than 3 in every 5 schools, which is about 620,000 schools, don't have toilets. The report also found that boys and girls share toilets in every second school at the elementary stage. Let us not even venture into usable condition of the toilets where it exists and add to the already dismal state of infrastructure. At the outset, UNICEF study's claim that sanitation is closely linked to female literacy in India might sound absurd especially given that over 90% of rural people defecate in the open. The bizarre linkage only unfolds when one listens to an 11-year-old girl's woe - "I was always first in the class. I'm very much interested in studies. I want to become a lawyer. But my mother stopped me from going to school after Class V as the middle school I was attending, 5 km from my house, had no toilet. Can someone help me?".

One can hardly dismiss this as one off and an inconsequential case when one realizes that these sentiments are shared by many a girls facing the onset of puberty, and with it the realities of menstruation in a school with no toilet and no hope of privacy other than the shadow of a bush. The impact becomes more substantial given that in rural communities, menstruation itself is so taboo that girls are prohibited from cooking or even banished during their periods. The problems that accompany maturity, like sexual harassment by male teachers and parental pressure to marry, only aggravates the pressure to drop-out.

While buying the case for toilets, one might question how realistic it is to expect a school to have a toilet when more than 700 million people don't have a toilets in their households. But  in a country where 700,000 children die every year due to diarrhea and dehydration caused by poor hygiene, can we choose to ignore? Is this an insurmountable challenge or is it just a lack of political-will? Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, who has successfully championed the cause of sanitation, has responded to this call by constructing more than 6000 toilets through his Sulabh Shauchalaya. What is even more commendable is his design of toilets that can be constructed at as little as 500 Rupees. He has also shown that the waste can be recycled to make gas, electricity and manure. If there are toilets that can be built at such affordable cost, why isn't the government or community taking it up for its schools?

It is incomprehensible to learn that government is still expending money on designing "ideal" toilets on paper. Is the government showing indifference in warning its tourists, on its official "Incredible India" website,  to not venture into public toilet facilities? I'm sometimes dumbstruck on how the same government which can afford a computer lab in a school at an exorbitant price, be not able to fund for a toilet. Is it because even at a higher cost the socio-economic impact of a computer in a school is much more than that of a toilet? Or can the corporates simply be blamed for coaxing the government to put an ICT solution in place of toilets? Is the government dumb or the corporate a con-man? Probably for a young woman in an Indian village who wrote a letter to her husband  "When you come home, do not bring ornaments for me. I would be more pleased if you bring money so we can build a toilet in the house.", a "personal" computer would hardly be the need of the hour.

~ Santosh

12/26/2007 21:01

you have raised a valid concern about sanitation. but just to carry forward your logic, is a toilet first or a school? is a school first or a health dispensary? clearly there are no easy answers on how to allocate the funds to these serious ills that plague our society. Therefore I would rather tackle it differently. instead of looking at what is required first, i try to understand what can i do well and whether it impacts a large no of people. When I find one such thing, i just go ahead and do it.
too simple, eh ??

12/26/2007 21:29

Abhishek, I agree with you that someone should do what s/he is best at. But, shouldn't government deciding to allocate their limited funds for projects make a more rigorous assessment and balanced judgement of what is needed the most? Are we unrealistic in expecting even this much from such functionaries?

12/27/2007 00:51

I realize my folly :)

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