Toilet targets: On ending open defecation
The campaign to end open defecation can succeed only if it takes communities with it
India’s declaration on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi that its rural areas are now open defecation-free will be acknowledged around the world as a milestone in its developmental journey. Cleanliness and sanitation were central to Gandhi’s concerns for his vast number of impoverished countrymen, and should ideally have been pursued zealously by governments in free India, along with good housing and access to clean water. In 2014, the NDA government made total sanitation a high priority, with the avowed goal of bridging decades of neglect through a policy focused on toilet construction. That 110 million toilets were built under this programme since then counts as an achievement in itself, even though many of these structures have been bootstrapped to ramshackle dwellings; many do not meet construction standards. Forward-looking as it is, the campaign for universal sanitation and an end to open defecation cannot go far if toilet access is the sole metric of success. One independent survey shows toilets are not used by up to half the population in some places, underscoring the challenge ahead. It is welcome, therefore, that an ODF-Plus programme has been adopted by the Ministry of Jal Shakti to encourage toilet use and create the infrastructure to manage solid and liquid waste in every village. This is a long road, and the Central government can hope to achieve sustainable outcomes only if it prioritises citizen rights and community participation. The campaign has erred in its approach in many instances, opting for coercive methods that produce dreadful consequences.
Development literature makes it clear that bringing one set of freedoms to people, including material benefits, cannot compensate for the loss of others, notably freedom from oppression.
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