Indian state pledges to clean up its act over public health

Bihar province unveils plans to build 9 million toilets in two years
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Sanitation in India is no laughing matter. It does not even qualify as toilet humour. But now, one of the country's notoriously poor states has pledged to build enough lavatories to end the widespread practice of "open-air defecation" in just two years.

During a month-long campaign, or yatra, in which the Public Health Minister of Bihar, Ashwani Kumar Choubey, has visited scores of villages across a state with dismal development records, he said there were sufficient resources to build the nine million toilets that were required to complete his promise. Activists estimated that to meet its target, the state will have to build 478 lavatories an hour.

"To keep villages clean, we have decided to construct toilets," he told The Independent as he travelled around the state highlighting the campaign. "The environment gets polluted if people defecate in the open. Also it gets difficult for our mothers, sisters, daughters to defecate, especially when they are sick. They can go only before sunrise and after sunset."

In India, as in much of the developing world, access to a toilet is the exception rather than the norm. In the state of Bihar, more than 80 per cent of the population have no alternative but to make use of scraps of land, bushes or alleyways. Such a situation is humiliating, unsanitary and dangerous.

Of the estimated 700 million people in India without access to a toilet, about one in six live in Bihar. Mr Choubey, whose department has been trying to raise awareness of the need for better sanitation using plays, songs, and village meetings, said the funds to build the facilities would come from central and state governments as well as local communities.

"The nation cannot be built until the body, heart and mind is clean," he added. "[Historically] there was punishment for spitting and urinating in the open. We see people spitting and urinating in the open even today. There should be a fine imposed. We wouldn't marry our daughters into homes with no toilets."

Dr Isha Prasad Bhagwat, a senior spokesman for the charity WaterAid, which has been working in Bihar since 2005, said the minister had been an effective communicator as he toured the state. "He speaks in the local language and dialects. He speaks of the problems faced by women when they need to defecate and he has linked this to the pride of the people," he said. "Rather than talking politics, he talks of the need for sanitation."

A recent report by the authorities in Mumbai found that, in slum areas – where more than half of the city's population of 14 million lives – the average toilet is shared by 81 people. Some are used by as many as 273.

In the state of Haryana, activists have recently launched a "No Toilet, No Wife" campaign, in which women have been urged to turn down potential husbands if the would-be groom or his family cannot provide a house with a lavatory.

The World Health Organisation has estimated that around the globe up to 2.6 billion people – or a third of the world's population – do not have access to proper toilet facilities. More than half live in China and India. The UN's target for providing proper facilities for all people is 2015.

Up to half a million people in India are engaged in what is termed "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.