Back to toilet school

Last August 15, speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the prime minister made a very important announcement—his government would ensure “there is no school in India without separate toilets for boys and girls” by the next Independence Day. Exactly one year later, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced that this target has been met and that some 417,000 toilets have been built in 261,000 schools.

This is no mean achievement, especially given the dire urgency and importance of this task. The fact is that lack of sanitation facilities is a reason for high dropout rates in schools—particularly of girls. It is also linked to higher disease burden. It is a basic human need—as basic as eating or breathing—and needs to be secured for human dignity. Most critically, toilets in schools are potential game-changers in society: quite simply, children learn the value of personal hygiene and bring it home. 

School toilets are harbingers of tomorrow’s India. So, it must be asked if the target has really been met or is this just about numbers. To know this, the related question is: are the toilets that have been built at this breakneck speed in use? Do they have running water; is there provision for regular cleaning and maintenance? Only then can we boast that the task is done. 

The government, while claiming 100 per cent success, says that it has repaired some 151,000 toilets and built the rest anew. On its website, it also explains that if anybody would like to volunteer to build toilets in schools, then it can provide designs. The cost of each toilet ranges from Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,30,000. In addition, it says that a hand pump—in cases where there is no piped water—and water tank will be needed, costing Rs 80,000, and another Rs 20,000 per year will be required for maintenance. The original plan was that corporate India would scale new heights and build these toilets. That has not happened. Private companies have been miserly and public sector undertakings are struggling to meet their school toilet commitments. 

Funds however have not been the constraint. The last government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan—a scheme to enforce the right to universal primary education—includes substantial money for civil works to build school infrastructure, including toilets. In February this year, the government extended the provision to include reconstruction of dysfunctional toilets as well. It is also to the credit of the government that it did not lose sight of the importance of this task.

The Prime Minister’s Office, it is said, monitored week-by-week progress. The deadline was clearly on everybody’s mind. My colleagues have calculated that some 2,850 toilets were built each month between August 2014 and March 2015. As the deadline came closer, construction moved to feverish pace. Between April and August this year, some 100,000 toilets were built each month. This, in itself, is not bad. It could be that the government ramped up its capacity; it wanted to ensure it reached its goal. 

But it is exactly because of all this that we must ask again: are the toilets functional? Frankly, there is no information about this in any report of the government. But media reportage from across the country suggests there is still a long way to go before we can talk about total sanitation, even in schools. This is not surprising. There is enough data and experience to tell us that just installing the hardware is not sufficient to ensure a toilet’s functionality. The lack of water is a major concern. India’s water programme has seen that even as settlements are ‘reached’ with supply, through hand pumps or wells, the number of unreached settlements goes up. The water dries up, hand pumps get broken and pipes collapse. 

Same is the case with sanitation—toilets are built, but either never used or become dysfunctional. More importantly, there is the matter of where the waste goes and how it is treated. So, building a receptacle to collect human excreta is only a small part of access to sanitation. 

We know, however, that school toilets are an easier part of the sanitation challenge. Schools have space for building toilets; ownership and control is clear and maintenance can be ensured. However, we still need a plan to make sure it happens. Unless this is done, the ministry cannot say that it has met its target. In fact, what is happening could have the reverse effect. In this past year, toilets have been built using funds allocated to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But in the Union Budget 2015, money for this scheme has been cut. Now the question is: how do schools plan to maintain these facilities; who will hold them accountable and how will this be reported? 

The fear I have is now that the task is shown as completed—it is checked and off the agenda—there will be little attention to the crucial detail that is everything between success and failure—not just a toilet but a working toilet, which is used and cleaned. This is what total sanitation is about. This is the least we can provide to our children.