Indian government pledges lavatories for all in a bid to keep private acts behind closed doors

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The Indian government has vowed to eradicate the all-too-common phenomenon of open-air defecation by building environmentally friendly lavatories for hundreds of millions of its poorest citizens.

The Rural Development minister, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, claimed that within five years, the government will have built sufficient facilities for everyone – many years ahead of an international deadline.

He revealed that the government would spend around £125m on rural sanitation projects this year, a increase of 43 per cent on last year. He said: "By 2012, India will be free of defecation in the open and will meet international commitments in this regard."

The minister's pledge was delivered at the 4th World Toilet Summit in New Delhi which has brought together experts from more than 40 countries to discuss ways of providing affordable sanitation for the world's poorest people. The conference is largely the result of campaigning by Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of a charity that provides public lavatories.

Mr Pathak told delegates: "To achieve the goals, what is essential is that technology needs to be urgently developed that is suitable and simple of implementation. Sewers or septic tanks are not the solutions. Doctors around the world now say that better sanitation and public hygiene are key for improving public health."

Since the 1970s, his organisation, Sulabh International, has developed simple composting toilets that turns waste into water, fertiliser for crops, and biogas that can be used to run generators or cook. His organisation has provided 6,500 public toilets, most recently in Kabul.

To prove the effectiveness of the Sulabh system, each of the delegates received, along with the usual commemorative pens and stickers, a sample of composted human waste recovered from a Sulabh toilet that had been mixed with glue and fashioned into a paper weight. They also received a small sachet of nitrogen-rich manure made from human waste. The World Health Organisation has estimated that around the globe up to 2.6 billion people – one third of the planet's entire population – do not have access to proper toilet facilities. More than half of them live in China and India, with the latter accounting for around 700 million people. The UN's target for providing proper facilities for all people is 2015.

Up to half a million people in India are engaged in "manual scavenging" – cleaning toilets that have no sewage system and carrying away waste or "night soil" on their heads or in carts. The practice has been officially outlawed but persists because in many places there are no alternatives.

One former scavenger, Sushila Chauhan from Alwar in Rajasthan, told delegates how, unlike most people in her dry, desert state, she hated the rain which spilled the waste she was carrying in a metal tray on her head all over her. She was "rehabilitated" by a training and education scheme provided by Dr Pathak's organisation. She said: "The nauseating acidic smell of human waste used to remain with me throughout the day, even hours after I would return from work. But worst of all there was a lack of appetite for food and everything good in life."

India's minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Meira Kumar, told the conference that the government would provide more resources for the rehabilitation of women such as Ms Chauhan.

Ms Kumar said: "We have banned the practice of manual scavenging and the government will complete the rehabilitation of all scavengers by March 2009. We launched a scheme for these people in January 2007 and the focus is to train scavengers for self-employment."