While access to toilets in India is now thought of to have improved—under the Swachh Bharat initiative, nearly 1.7 crore households in rural areas got new toilets—a new report that offers a sobering check on how much distance still remains before India reaches universal access to sanitation, saying nearly 60.4% of the population still does without safe and private toilets. WaterAid, an international NGO, states in its report, “If all 774 million people in India waiting for household toilets were made to stand in a line, the queue would stretch from Earth to the moon and beyond.” That WaterAid’s number is higher than that thrown up by the last Census exercise—which showed a little under 50% of Indian households defecated in the open—should stir a sense of urgency into India’s efforts. Though access has improved by 22.8 percentage points since 1990, India ranks 7th out of eight countries in South Asia for improvement.
Meanwhile, lack of access to toilets continues to have a devastating effect on the country—over 1.4 lakh children under five years of age die every year from preventable diseases like diarrhoea. The WaterAid report claims that 40% of children in India suffer from stunted growth—many studies have linked faecal matter contamination and the resulting diseases to this. It is amply clear that while building more toilets is a giant step forward, ensuring a behavioural change, one that pushes people towards total sanitation, including hygienic practices such as use of soaps and disinfectants in ablutions, etc, is cirtical to Swachh Bharat success, too.