Travel and Tourism sans (clean) Toilets: Whither Incredible India?

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A travel enthusiast, I have found a travel buddy in my husband who is great at planning trips. While going through the list of travel ‘must-haves’ he has often recommended buying ‘pee-cups’ (for those who are unaware these are disposable female urination devices which allow women to pee while standing) hailing them as a necessary safeguard. Human biology makes women more vulnerable to contracting infections from dirty toilets, he would reiterate. For long I ignored his suggestions but yesterday, on ordering my first pack, I feel a sense of relief and here’s why.

Last year, on our way to a lesser known hill-station in Uttarakhand we made a night halt at Nainitaal, Uttarakhand – an extremely popular tourist destination in North India.  Little had I imagined that the hill station of such repute would have one of the filthiest public toilets I would come across. The biological urgency dictated me to use it but not without saying my prayers. To add to my anger, the guard seated outside (unmoved by the stench) calmly stretched his hand out, “Madam, paise (money)?” “For what?” I almost shouted. “haalat dekhi hai apne andar (have you seen the condition inside)? ”paani kaha ata hai safai karne ke liye, itna use kiya wo kaafi hai (where is the water to clean the toilets, at least you could use it).” he replied curtly. Defeated by the logic, I quietly handed him 5 rupees and walked off.

A stranger situation presented itself in a Sulabh toilet complex in Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh – another popular tourist spot in the northern hills. It was about 7 am and two men were shaving inside the women toilets and when I pointed their attention to the “LADIES” board, one of them calmly replied,” Aa jao. Use kar lo (Come in. use the loo)”. I told them it wasn’t appropriate for them to be in there and they should go across to the men’s toilet. “Waha sheesha nai hai (there is no mirror there)” said one of them while continuing to shave. With no guard seated outside and unable to argue with my bladder bursting, I did use the loo but not without wondering how many women would have simply turned away seeing the men inside the ladies toilet and would I have dared to use it if it was 7pm instead of 7 am?

On another trip to Mcleodganj, again in Himachal Pradesh, my husband and I were out on an evening stroll. We had been walking for hours with no public toilet in sight. Not able to walk any further I rushed to a roadside restaurant asking if I could use the toilet. The women on the reception politely refused stating that only guests of the hotels and restaurant are allowed to use the facilities! Yes sure, that made valid business sense but wasn’t good news for my bladder given that there was no nearby facility I could use. “I would pay you to use it” I almost begged but she must have been trained well by senior management (since I am sure I wasn’t the first one to make such a request!) and was unmoved by my plight, I had no option but to continue walking but the terrible discomfort of doing so is something I would not forget easily.

None of this however compares to the disappointment we experienced during a family trip to Mathura – Vrindavan where according to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna spent his childhood days. We were appalled to see the condition of loos at Krishan Janmbhoomi (Lord Krishna’s birthplace) – a place of immense religious value and a major tourist attraction. The ladies toilet complex was extremely filthy making it impossible to even step in let alone use. But being out of options I did use it with dupatta tied firmly to my nose and part of my dignity ripped as I sat in a pool of filth. My mother-in-law and I had to live this horror not once but many times over during our trip.

Closer to home, the Surajkund Mela is an international crafts exhibition held annually in Faridabad district of Haryana is a huge cultural spectacle attracting lakhs of tourists. I have been a regular visitor over the last 3 years and have to relive the nightmare of using choked dirty toilets each time. When I posed a question about how such a place can afford to neglect the cleaning of toilets, the maintenance staff answered “aap subah aake dekha karo, ekdum saaf hota hai (you come in the morning and see its absolutely clean)”, “But that’s not the point…..” That’s all I could tell her as it was pointless to explain that these are toilets not showpieces that need to be cleaned once and would shine through the day!

To be fair, I have visited places with decent toilet facilities too especially down south. But unfortunately the filthy unusable ones far outnumber them. It does make me wonder why our tourism industry fails to realise the importance of such a basic necessity. But then maybe the answer is have we stressed on their importance enough? Yes, we all want clean and accessible toilets but the question is how bad? How many of us would take the lead in telling the agency in-charge at these popular tourist destinations/spots that each time a woman visits their dirty toilets or worse still, chooses to “hold on” she makes herself vulnerable to dangerous infectious diseases? Is it not the opportune time in the vision of “Swachh Bharat” to rate the travel destinations of “Incredible India” based on more than just great hotels? Would a travellers’ movement begin to ‘name and shame’ the offenders and reward the good performing ones to bring some economic sense into this otherwise neglected discussion?

Till that happens I am not travelling without my pack of ‘pee-cups!

— Medhavi Sharma, Assistant Director, FICCI and Program Assistant, India Sanitation Coalition. She has previously worked with NITI Aayog (the erstwhile Planning Commission), Government of India and SaciWATERs, Hyderabad on cross-sectoral issues related to the environment sector. She has co-authored a report titled, “Water in India: Situation and Prospects”, published by UNICEF and FAO. Her interests include travelling, reading and (pretty much everything about) wildlife.


Rethinking The Swachh Vidyalaya Initiative

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The Swachh Vidyalaya Initiative taken up since August 2014 by the Ministry of Human Resources Development under the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)  has aimed at providing toilets, for both girls and boys, in schools that don’t have these facilities.  It also aims at making defunct school toilets functional.  Further, the initiative emphasizes the need to have strong demand / behavior change campaigns to inculcate safe sanitation among children, and through them their parents and families – to consistently use toilets and not practice open defecation, maintain their toilets and also instill strong habits around hand washing.

While no comprehensive assessment of this programme is available so far, construction achievement figures are available and are being tracked from across the country.  While the news around construction of toilets is encouraging, the larger issues around usability, availability of water, etc. are still far from satisfactorily being addressed.

It has been assessed in the latest Swachhta Status report that 4.17 lakh toilets were constructed in 2.61 lakh schools and the target has been achieved. Of this number, only twelve corporate houses have constructed 3,466 toilets. .

Ground reports from various areas including states in the North East and East point out that a majority of toilets in water stressed regions are yet to be handed over to school authorities, since no adequate provision for  water supply has been made.  This seems to be a major challenge and needs to be addressed.  Water experts say integrated water resources management is key to solve this crisis.

Shipra Saxena, Program Manager, India Sanitation Coalition. With around 17 years of experience, Shipra has been associated with TARU Leading Edge, Dept. of Drinking Water and Sanitation (Govt. of India), and Water Aid India. Before joining ISC, she was working with Population Foundation of India (PFI).

Understanding Sanitation & the Need for Proper Disposal of Waste

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Sanitation is now steadily the most talked about subject in the country. With successive governments laying massive emphasis on making the country filth and dirt-free and crores of rupees being invested year after year into campaigning for the same, what is it that is still far from being achieved? Why are we as the world’s second largest population still moving at a snail’s pace? Is sanitation really important to us? Were we taught the real meaning of sanitation, or are we imparting the right education to our future generations at all? Somewhere it all stems from the fact that we over the generations have known so little about cleanliness and sanitation. Flush it, and the poo goes away. But do we really bother where it goes, as long as we can’t see it or smell it? It is not just about not smelling or seeing excreta, it ought to be about safe disposal as well.

Over time, as a country we have become comfortable with filth. There is no general population outrage when they see a pile of garbage on the road, in shopping markets, or even around the places they live. People have become comfortable with dirt, garbage and even excreta floating in their water bodies, drains and cities. This situation has to change!

Excavations by archaeologists have proven that in the most ancient civilizations every household had a private toilet. But as time passed, and administration styles changed, so did societies. 500 AD to 1500 AD is considered as the era that took human hygiene to its lowest dipping point. Aristocratic households and forts across India used protrusions for defecation. Excreta was simply dumped here and there or into the rivers. Some parts of the Mughal Empire bear testimony to the primitive practice of covering human waste with earth. And then wherever public toilets were built, lack of maintenance rendered them unusable with people finally resorting to open defecation.

The caste system further aggravated the situation since cleaning came to be seen as a menial job, with the lower rung being given the responsibility of cleaning the mess and filth for the upper castes. And this thought still exists. As recent researches have pointed out, somewhere it is the mindset that needs overhauling. “Should I not be responsible for my own waste?” Why should it be someone else’s job to clean my waste? This has to start somewhere, and where else but the schools? We don’t remember being taught about right disposal of waste, or to even recognize that disposal is as important as using toilets. After all, undisposed excreta in the biosphere poses as much threat even if unseen. Effort now has to be made to teach future generations to understand that excreta flowing out through drains cannot just be dumped and needs to be treated.

Maybe this is one step ahead of all the efforts that the Government is making on spreading messages about building, using and maintaining toilets. One key aspect is however, missing….what about treatment? If we don’t treat our waste, we might as well let it float and build up outside….by collecting it in toilets, and then dumping it or letting it seep out through overflowing tanks, doesn’t solve our problems. We are too easy on ourselves and our administrators. We must demand of ourselves to pay attention to cleanliness; and demand of our governments to ensure that all human excreta is safely treated before it is allowed into the environment. Our rivers, forests, and living environment are at grave threat – and the threat is not from some external source – but coming out of our homes, offices, shops, drains! Sanitation is everyone’s problem and by focusing on the end goal of treatment, we can add to the resource pool of safe water, and valuable nutrients that will enrich the environment for future generations.

Neeti Sharma, Communications and Media Coordinator, Save the Children. With more than 14 years of experience in working with various broadcast mediums, Neeti made her shift to the Development sector 3 years ago and has worked with the Red Cross movement in humanitarian and disaster situations. She is a keen observer of the human psyche and also works at devising new innovative ways to help enthuse Behaviour Change. She is currently working the Stop Diarrhoea Initiative, a signature programme of the Organization that aims to reduce diarrhoeal incidence and prevalence in both urban and rural intervention areas.



“Shopeeing” trouble

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Walking through the bustling lanes of Rajouri Garden, West Delhi’s shopping epicenter, one often gets bitten by the splurging bug. For the shopping buffs, it is not merely the experience of picking items randomly but the whole pleasure of going through the process of satisfying the material craving that matters.

Traditional Indian market places like Rajouri Garden might be a delightful stopover for women shoppers, however the lack of the most basic facilities like a toilet can make the shopping a harrowing experience.

The sprawling market, best known for its bridal wear, does not have a toilet for neither women nor men. Even the glass-chrome shops selling saris, suits and lehngas do not have a washroom facility. Even in the case that there is one available, it is so dirty that one prefers to avoid it. Most salesmen and girls; there are hundreds of them, use a public toilet which is located slightly away from the main complex. Men conveniently use backlanes, or simply a wall, or a corner. Women have no such ‘luxury’.

The toilet crisis is not limited to Rajouri Garden alone. It is the same in most markets in Delhi; the coming up of swanky malls has addressed the problem to a great extent. But the old traditional markets, which still remain relevant as they offer great room to bargain, have failed to cater to even the most basic amenity.

I sometimes wonder why toilets are not considered an important part of our daily lives in public space.

When I was a child I used to visit my ancestral village in Kumoun. Being a Delhi girl, it was unimaginable to stay in a house without a toilet. I was told that toilets are dirty and impure so cannot be inside the house. It was not easy to go to the open field to answer the call of nature. So my visits to my village became less and less, despite the fact that I wanted so much to spend time with my grandmother. The toilets appeared in the villages of Kumoun when I started going to college, but they were still not inside the house.

As a young woman reporter, I have been lucky to visit some villages in India, but the toilet story remains the same all across. As a working journalist, one experiences the problem while on assignments. If you are covering a rally away from Delhi, men find it so easy to relieve themselves but women go through hell. No arrangements are made by the organisers as they expect women also to go to the fields. And many of us have done it often.

During a visit to Lucknow (to see changes in educational institutions), I was horrified to see that tiny toddlers (mostly girls) would go home from school every time they had to ease themselves. This was the main reason the teachers said the parents don’t send girls to school.

I felt ashamed that despite so many years of independence we are not able to provide toilets to our children. This was some years ago. I hope situation has changed now.

I visited Greater Noida last year and was pleasantly surprised to see a nicely built toilet in a government school. But I soon discovered that it was merely a showpiece as the toilet could not be used because of no water. Girls didn’t use the toilet. They had nowhere to go during the school hours and wait to reach home. Most of them had not even heard of problems like Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) which can be contracted by holding the bladder for too long.

Well, there are countless other stories I can narrate about the missing toilet and how it has impacted the society; mostly girls.

Through this blog the attempt is to create awareness and also to also create a buzz about the need for sanitation in India.

And it is not the duty of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone (who had promised from the ramparts of the Red Fort during his maiden speech about building toilets and making India clean), it is the duty of every Indian.

— Kavita Bajeli-Datt has been writing on development, women, child and health issues for the last 20 years. She was awarded Deepalaya award for best writing on child rights in 2000. Kavita is an avid traveler and loves to explore new territories. Her travel pieces have appeared in several publications across the world. Kavita has worked in The Week and Press Trust of India (PTI). She was the Chief of Bureau in the IANS (Indo-Asian News Service) where she spearheaded the news coverage. She is also an accomplished Kathak dancer and performed in India and abroad. She is working as an Independent writer contributing for various publications, including IANS and Tribune. She is also a member of the Advocacy, Branding and Communications (ABC) Task Force of India Sanitation Coalition (ISC).

The Need of the Hour: Addressing Sanitation in India

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The need to address the situation of sanitation in India cannot be understated. Globally, every year, around 60 million children are born into homes without access to sanitation. Today, 2.5 billion people lack improved sanitation. India alone with 626 million people practicing open defecation, has more than twice the number of the next 18 countries combined. Furthermore, India accounts for 90 per cent of the 692 million people in South Asia who practice open defecation and also accounts for 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practice open defecation. [1]

These statistics are alarming and are being increasingly referenced to as the debate and dialogue around sanitation in India garners significant momentum. In particular, the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan by Prime Minister Naredra Modi on October 2, 2014, has put sanitation and the drive to make India truly ‘swachh’ into the spotlight. From including sanitation into the priority sector lending fold to creating the Swachh Bharat Kosh, the government is mobilizing great efforts and resources to try and reach its target of making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2019.

This effort and political will is commendable. However, we must not lose the momentum that has been generated by the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). What is required now is to integrate the fragmented elements of the Indian sanitation space, both in terms of discussions and players. The India Sanitation Coalition (ISC) strives to do just that. By focusing on the entire value chain of Build, Use, Maintain and Treat (BUMT), the Coalition seeks to create a framework for collaboration amongst varied players, from corporate power houses to development practitioners, who are willing and able to engage in the Indian sanitation space.

From usage of toilets and water stress to the issue of fecal sludge management (FSM) and water table protection, we must use this historic opportunity to address the problem of sanitation in its entirety. Discussion and dialogue that has and can translate into constructive policy and action is happening but it is happening in silos.

The ISC blog seeks to provide a platform to all stakeholders to share, discuss and deliberate on issues relating to sanitation in India. Through this, we hope to integrate the players and discussions who are all working towards the common goal of “sanitation plus” – that is, moving beyond just the building of toilets to those that are used, maintained and where all human waste is safely treated and disposed.

Please note that while the ISC strongly believes and facilitates the exchange of dialogue and debate, all viewpoints and opinions posted on the ISC blog are that of the respective authors and are not necessarily endorsed by the Coalition.

Moving forward, we are excited about the launch of this blog and look forward to some constructive and informative exchange!



About ISC

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The Coalition Mandate
Success is attainable with a solid foundation. For this, the India Sanitation Coalition will operate with the following mandate:

To enable and to support an ecosystem for sustainable sanitation

To be an aggregator of knowledge and networks with nationwide outreach, focusing on models for achieving sustainable sanitation in alignment with the Swachh Bharat Mission and its goals

To bring organizations and individuals together to find sustainable solutions for sanitation through a platform for corporates, civil society groups, government, financial institutions, media, donors/ bilaterals/ multilaterals, experts etc.

The India Sanitation Coalition aims at bringing together all actors in the sanitation space to drive sustainable sanitation through a partnership mode. While FICCI serves the role of the secretariat of the coalition, the work of the coalition will be carried out by 4 taskforces composed of coalition members.

The Coalition was successfully launched on June 25, 2015 at FICCI, New Delhi by Shri Birendra Singh, Hon’ble Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Smt Vijaylaxmi Joshi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India.

launch photo