One of the prominent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations is that of ending open defecation globally. It had been a major yet grossly overlooked challenge in India until recent years. In the year 2000, the Government of India launched an ambitious campaign to ensure universal rural sanitation in India by the year 2012. This major community-level campaign focused on building awareness and providing infrastructural support to sanitation practices. However, it did not create any significant impact or awareness. In the year 2014, about 70% of the rural population in India continued to defecate in the open. As per the data provided by UNICEF, almost half of India’s population continued to defecate in fields, forests, water bodies and numerous other public places. The main cause of this problem was cited as the lack of access to toilets. At that time, India was home to 90% of the total 1.2 billion people globally and 90% of South Asians who had continued with open defecation.
The socio-economic impact of open defecation might not appear to be as grave as it actually happened to be. The practice contributed to the persistent spread of waterborne diseases and diarrheal problems which were further compounded by a lack of hand hygiene and microbial contamination of potable water. Almost 100,000 children under five years of age in India, perished annually to such diarrheal diseases. Apart from this direct loss of young lives, the lack of sanitation and toilet hygiene also causes ripple effects as it continuously causes illnesses among workers bringing down their lifespan as well as productivity. People earn less and are unable to afford education and quality of life for their children, leading to a cyclic menace that affected hundreds of millions of people.
In the year 2015, Prime Minister initiated the ambitious Swachh Bharat campaign which aimed at ending open defecation in India by October 2019. Driven by a vigorous awareness drive and governmental support, it is reported that over 11 crore toilets were built as a part of this campaign and as per the estimates, by 2019 the number of people without access to toilets had reduced by a massive 450 million people. According to UNICEF which partners with the government in the WASH initiatives, India has made tremendous progress to end open defecation and there is a clearly visible improvement of water, sanitation and hygiene levels in the country. It is estimated that for each $1 of investment in water and sanitation, the increased productivity leads to a generation of $4.30 in economic returns.
Thus, there have been multi-pronged efforts during the last five years to ensure the SDG of easy universal access to water and sanitation for all Indians. International bodies and corporate houses have been working in tandem with the government to generate awareness, spreading information and creating a behavioral change to not only build toilets, but also promote key aspects of toilet usage and hand hygiene.
In the wake of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, sanitation and hygiene have become topics of utmost urgency and toilet hygiene is one of the key behavioral changes coming to the fore. There has been a lot of emphasis in the last few months on ensuring absolute hygiene and preventing microbial buildup in toilets as well as strict adherence to hand-washing.
Through consistent awareness drives, information campaigns and advertisements, authorities as well as corporate houses have been advocating the usage of disinfectants and hand sanitizers in public places. The efforts are aided by startups working in the area of hygiene and sanitation! Those who have used a public washroom and spotted a toilet seat disinfectant spray would know how startups are also working towards better hygiene. There is evidently a synergy between public and private entities in this area.
Frequently washing hands with soap and water has become a key element in the fight against COVID-19 and wearing of face masks is also highly recommended while using public toilets as the virus can easily infect people through fecal fumes generated by flushing activities. It is expected that the enhanced emphasis on toilet hygiene coupled with the building of toilet infrastructure by the government will help in overcoming numerous infectious diseases and WASH challenges in the years ahead!
(The author is Founder of Pee Safe. Views expressed are personal.)