In Focus

Modi's 'Toilets First' stand vindicated

The dearth of functional ladies’ toilets at the city’s railway stations underlines the nation’s need for the same. The Badaun rape vindicates Narendra Modi’s ‘toilets first’ stand, writes Gajanan Khergamker

Social media enthusiasts had deemed it as the ‘funniest video ever’ when John Oliver made a mockery of Indian Politics and particularly Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. Oliver dished out ‘witty’ remarks like “Wow! That’s a bold move, coming out as pro-toilet” or “So, who are you gonna vote for? Modi. Why? Because he appeared to me as a hologram and told me he’d give me a toilet,” and for many it was ‘hilariously funny.’

The video went viral and with it the ill-placed sarcasm aimed to belittle Modi’s poll plank. While the lesser-viewed Oliver’s spiel wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, it surely provided for rather mediocre entertainment. That it became hugely viral espoused the fact that most viewers completely missed the point.Satire is associated with verbal onslaughts that don’t quite qualify for penal action but risk being starkly insensitive to culture and gender issues.

But then, for Oliver as with an equally-insensitive viewership, the satire was at worst … funny. Oliver and most of his giggly viewership were unaware of the impending risks that half of India’s population –a whopping 1/12th of the world’s – has to face while venturing out in the open at odd hours of the night or early morning for some private time in a wholly unsafe public space. So, the promise of ‘a toilet in every home’ may not feature on a US politician’s list of poll planks, it is the need of the hour for a country like India where every house does not have a toilet of its own.

It’s of little wonder then that Narendra Modi, the-then Prime Ministerial candidate had earlier last year said that ‘Toilets were needed more than temples,’ in a statement that hit the nail on the head. Recently, when two minor Dalit girls were found hanging from a tree in Badaun District in Uttar Pradesh, the entire nation was horrified and Modi’s concerns vindicated. Reports confirmed that both the girls were raped and injury marks were found on their bodies too.

The girls were sisters and abducted by the perpetrators when they were on the way to relieve themselves in the fields. This rape once again highlighted the fact that there is a dearth of public toilets and proper sanitation in India and that, the worst affected with women who were at the highest risk. The sad fact is this is not a case in isolation. There have been many such cases reported across nation, in the past, when a vulnerable target has been abducted, raped and/or murdered by crime perpetrators when s/he goes to relieve herself in the open fields.

Last year, United Nations released a report suggesting around 53 per cent of India’s population still defecate in the open. And, it is not just rural areas; cities too contribute to this huge percentage highlighted in the UN report. Having to fear for one’s safety every time a person needs to answer nature’s call should not be a ‘regular’ occurrence.

Narendra Modi rightly highlighted India's need for toilets...and there was nothing funny about it! But, in rural areas where one has to go searching for a deserted farms or fields or wait for it to get dark to relive oneself in a nearby jungle, safety is always compromised and the one’s at the highest risk continue being women and children. A while back, the founder of the Sulabh sanitation movement Bindeshwar Pathak reportedly wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi detailing how the number of rapes can be brought down by just building toilets for women who make themselves vulnerable to attacks by defecating in the open.

“This is the only measure as they do not have toilets in the home and they have to go outside, even at night. If toilets are going to be built then our women would be safer,” Pathak said addressing a section of the media. Pathak, while attending a hygiene conference by the Institution of Public Health Engineers, also suggested that he would appeal to the PM to increase government funds meant for sanitation. “The funds allocated at present are not at all adequate. I would request him to end open defecation in the country in the next five years,” he said.

Adding to it, he also said that “Many girls don't go to school because they have no toilets meant for them. There are around 50 diseases, which are caused to poor sanitary practises. All this can be eliminated.” He said he is ready to offer advice and other kinds of support, which the government needs to build toilets.

Earlier in February 2014, PM Modi, while campaigning in Kolkata, West Bengal, pointed out a worrying fact that only 60 per cent of the schools in West Bengal have toilets for girls. Although West Bengal State Government claimed that 82 per cent of the schools have separate toilets for girls, data acquired from the District Information System for Education (DISE), a central data collection set up of the Ministry of Education, even though the state does have around 74.9 per cent toilets for girls in school, only 59 per cent are functioning.

Concurrently, news reports in January 2013 suggested that 30 per cent of the schools in Gujarat don’t have functional girls’ toilets. But according to the DISE data, 97 per cent of the schools in Gujarat have girls’ toilet and all of them are in functioning condition. There are several other reasons why immediate attention should be given to sanitation and toilet facilities in India. The UN report states, “Our research showed that six-year-olds who had been exposed to India's sanitation programme during their first year of life were more likely to recognise letters and simple numbers on learning tests than those who were not,” said Dean Spears, lead author of the paper ‘Effects of Early-Life Exposure to Sanitation on Childhood Cognitive Skills’. The paper studies the effects on childhood cognitive achievement of early life exposure to India's Total Sanitation Campaign, a national scale government programme that encouraged local governments to build and promote use of inexpensive pit latrines.

“This is important news, the study suggests that low-cost rural sanitation strategies such as India’s Total Sanitation Campaign can support children’s cognitive development,” Spears said. The study also suggested that open defecation is an important threat to the human capital of developing countries and that a program accessible to countries where sanitation development capacity is lower could improve average cognitive skills.

“Open defecation lies at the root of many development challenges, as poor sanitation and lack of access to toilets impact public health, education and the environment, Manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project Jaehyang So reportedly said. In September 2011, UN rapped the USA in a report suggesting the USA does not provide adequate sanitation facilities for the homeless in its country. In an official report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a top UN investigator said that the United States’ failure to provide homeless persons access to water and sanitary facilities “could … amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.”

“The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must ensure that everyone (has access) to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure and which provides privacy and ensures dignity. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restroom facilities in public places, including during the night. The long-term solution to homelessness must be to ensure adequate housing.” In May 2012, in Oregon, a US Jury awarded two workers a compensation of $332 K for not being provided with ‘an on-site toilet.’

The workers who claimed they were forced to urinate in a bucket have been awarded $332,000 after a jury found they were fired for complaining to Oregon regulators about the lack of an onsite toilet. The men performed mechanical work at Portland International Airport. Reportedly, the Juror said the company’s treatment of the men was ‘definitely despicable.’ The Juror also stated she and other jurors believed that having easy access to a toilet was ‘a basic human right.’

On similar lines, just earlier this May, in Mumbai, a Consumer Court penalised local Western Railway for failing to providing free and accessible toilets for women commuters on railway stations. Reportedly, in 2007, the complainant was humiliated and abused when she requested to use the railway staff toilet at Dadar Railway Station after she started menstruating on a local train. According to the complainant, she was on a local train on January 3, 2007 when she started menstruating. So, she alighted on Dadar Railway Station and desperately began to look for a toilet. She was informed about a toilet near the booking office counter on the footbridge. But, the toilet was locked and none of the railway staff at the station could help her.Unable to wait any longer, she requested the staff if she could use the facility provided to them. But she was refused by the staff and was told that they were afraid she would plant a bomb in the toilet. Apparently, it was only when the chief booking supervisor arrived at the scene after 35 minutes, did he allow her to use the toilet.

The woman took the matter to Consumer Court which held that Western Railway was guilty of deficiency in service for not providing free and accessible toilets for women commuters and directed the Western Railway to pay Rs 25,000 in compensation to the woman. Last year, in August 2013, two women journalists - Nitali Sarmah and Sulakshana Mithi Kachari - from Guwahati filed a PIL asking court to direct government agencies to maintain separate toilets for women in all locations under the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC).

The Guwahati High Court on basis of this PIL issued notices to the state government, Guwahati Municipal Corporation and Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) to respond to the PIL that appealed for adequate arrangements of separate public lavatories or toilets for women in the city. The two journalists, referring to data accessed through RTI applications, informed the court that there were toilets, constructed by the GMDA and run by Guwahati Naba Udya Society, an NGO, at Machkhowa, Tarun Ram Phukan Park, Nehru Park, State Zoo, Chandmari, Ulubari and Silpukhuri. But there were no separate toilets for women.

When asked through RTI applications, the GMC had informed that there was a toilet inside Fancy Bazar market and at Adabari bus terminus, too, but without separate facility for women. The situation is no better in the nation’s capital. Reports suggest, in June 2013, there were 5,383 public toilets for 17 million citizens and, of them, there were just 391 toilets earmarked for women. Rape is a serious issue and, back in India, ensuring a safe and secure toilet is within reach of each and every woman is a gargantuan task.

On the importance of toilets, the Prime Minister is on the right track. However, implementation holds the key to ensure safety of women. Each state will need to pull up its socks and ensure the basics are provided. And, this applies to all, even states not ruled by the BJP…UP and Maharashtra for instance.