Editorial: October 2012
Jairam Ramesh, Rural Development Minister in the Central Cabinet recently asked, "We can launch missiles like Agni and satellites, but we cannot provide sanitation to our women. What can be a bigger blot on the nation than this?"
60% of people (626 million) living in our country do not have access to toilets, and hence are forced to defecate in the open. This makes India the number one country in the world where open defecation is practised. Indonesia with 63 million is a far second!
Of the 2.4 lakh gram panchayats in the country, only 24,000 are free from open defecation." Rapidly modernising India is drowning in its own excreta," says Sunita Narain, Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment. It is in this ocean of excreta that our rural and slum children are being raised.
Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been on this job for decades, with varying degrees of success. Sulabh Shauchalaya, initiated in many places by Bindeshwar Pathak, has been a boon to many thousands of people. The Gramalaya group in Tiruchi and the efforts of Mahtab Bamiji in the Narsapur area deserve mention. 35 different organisations are reported to be working to initiate the 'Right to Pee' campaign in Mumbai to remove public toilet disparity for women. Women, as opposed to men, had to pay in order to use public toilets in Mumbai. 60% women do not have access to proper sanitation. Open defecation and open urinating are national shames.
Another fact which needs immediate attention in this regard is that the railways make the entire country an open latrine from North to South and East to West. The excrement falling on the railway tracks throughout the length and breadth of our country is spreading diseases all over. This was brought to the attention of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the 1980s, if not earlier. Very little has been done so far to remedy this horrible practice. Thank God, the aircrafts were not designed and built by us! Why can't the excrement from the train toilets be contained and disposed off appropriately at the railway junctions? Urgent action is called for.
About 97% of our countrymen do not have access to clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The problem is due to contamination of drinking water by leaked sewage. Sewage overflowing from manholes into the drinking water stream, is a recurring problem in our country. Old rusted pipelines also contribute to the problem. Citizens have been putting up with the stench, flies and sewage on the road. While getting rid of open defecation will go a long way in improving sanitation and reducing outbreaks of diseases, there is a strong case for larger investment on sewage systems.
The silver lining is the determination of Jairam Ramesh to rid the country's open defecation within a decade. He has initiated a Total Sanitation Campaign called Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), which would attempt to banish open defecation in a decade. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs recently increased the amount of money to be spent for household toilets in rural areas from Rs. 4,600 to Rs. 10,000. For the 12th five-year plan, the Planning Commission has allocated Rs. 36,000 crore for sanitation in rural areas. This is a dramatic jump from the Rs. 7800 crore of the 11th plan.
In this context, it is very heartening to learn that the government has recognised Railways as "the world's largest open toilet." Jairam Ramesh has signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on July 26, 2012, to provide 1000 bio-digester toilets to 300 gram panchayats on a pilot basis in the next two years. (The minister had said earlier that the amount required for installing 1000 bio-digester toilets in 300 gram panchayats is equal to that spent on one Rafale fighter jet). His ministry will also bear half the cost of retrofitting 43,000 train coaches and all new coaches with bio-digester toilets. The deadline for this Rs. 500 crore project is 2016-17.
Merely allocating funds won't help. They have to be utilised properly. Rajiv Gandhi had pointed out that only 15% of the allocated funds actually reached the grassroots. Today, the amount reaching the people may be even lesser. So, provision of funds alone cannot solve the malaise. It is necessary to bring about a change in mindset. People should be made aware of the fact that open defecation is linked to diseases like diarrhoea. Almost 10% of all communicable diseases are linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation. According to WHO, open defecation is the "riskiest sanitation practice of all."
It is the mindset that needs to change. Habits have to change. If Sikkim can do it and become Nirmal Rajya (100% open defecation-free), we too can do it!
Does this topic have any relevance to us?
Among "the statutes and the judgements which the Israelites were to observe in the land God gave them to possess, as long as they live on the earth," it is stipulated as follows: "You shall also have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement" (Deut.23:12-13). Holiness demanded high standards of cleanliness in the camp, particularly in matters concerning human excrement.
Among God's people, laws of cleanliness applied to every part of the peopleís lives, including their daily food and bodily cleanliness. It helped to keep them physically healthy, by preventing them from eating harmful foods, encouraging personal hygiene, and limiting the spread of disease. They were particularly useful in an age of little scientific knowledge. A few simple rules enabled the people to prevent the problem.
The military camp of Israel engaged in the wars of the Lord was an extension of the theocratic kingdom and needed to be characterised by that same sanctity which marked the settled community. In war, as in peace, God was present among the people, and His name must be hallowed. Physical cleanliness is a symbol of the holiness of the covenant relationship. Cleanliness in the camp is prescribed both for health and for personal purity, consonant with the presence of the Lord in their midst.
As the Israelites increased in number, social and sanitary problems increased. They were to be clean and free from moral and ceremonial pollution, as well as natural pollution. The camp was to be clean, with nothing offensive in it.
It is strange that the divine law, the solemn order and direction of Moses, should extend to a thing of this nature. Its design was to teach them,
* modesty and good decorum; nature itself teaches them to distinguish themselves from beasts that know no shame.
* cleanliness and neatness in their camp. Impurity is offensive to the senses God has endued us with, prejudicial to the health, a wrong to the comfort of human life and an evidence of a careless slothful temper of mind.
* purity from the pollution of sin; if this care must be taken to preserve the body clean and sweet, much more should be done to keep the mind clean.
* reverence for the divine majesty. The reason given in the word of God is, "For the Lord walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you" (Deut.23:14).
* a regard one to another. The filthiness of one is troublesome to many. This law of cleanliness teaches us not to do anything which will be justly offensive to our brethren, and grieve them. It is a law against nuisances.
This has an important lesson for us. When will we learn?