Toilets, Varanasi. Stefano Ember
“Lovers built the Taj Mahal for their love. But I couldn’t build a loo.” So says Keshav, the lead character of a new Bollywood movie, after his wife leaves him for failing to build a toilet in their home. The film, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, is a commercial film in support of governmental campaigns to improve sanitation in India.
Access to sanitation has attracted more attention in India over the past few years thanks to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). Launched in 2014, this project seeks to make the country free of “open defecation” – the practice of defecating outside – by 2019. The effort follows the Supreme Court of India which recognised sanitation as a fundamental right in the 1990s, and the UN General Assembly following suit much more recently in recognising sanitation as a distinct human right.
The project will be an immense challenge for India, which was responsible for 60% of the world’s open defection five years ago. This is particularly a problem in the country’s large rural areas. India has a huge population and a major lack of accessible toilets – both in private households and in public spaces. Roughly half of the rural population are estimated to lack proper access to sanitation. In rural areas, people often go to remote fields to relieve themselves – separate for men and women.
To reach the 2019 goal, the country will need both behaviour change and new infrastructure to succeed. As of now, India appears to be headedtowards ensuring that every house has an individual toilet in the next couple of years. But this will only be an important first step in a series needed to ensure the country has interventions covering all dimensions of sanitation.
One of the most important challenges will be to build community and public toilets. In a number of places, community toilets are necessary because building individual toilets at home may not be feasible, for instance, because of lack of space. Also, they are necessary for people without a house, such as homeless people and migrant workers.
The need for community toilets is already recognised as part of current sanitation interventions but is often not implemented. And local authorities often lack the funds to pay someone to undertake the cleaning of the facilities once built.