The pandemic has exposed India’s dirty truth: a broken sanitation system

Instead of focusing so heavily on building new toilets, we need to address the problems of actual toilet usage in rural India.

Newly-built “dry latrines” and “hanging toilets” in rural India are the result of the lockdowns of 2020-21 despite the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and a strict ban. Sanitary toilet usage has declined because of the COVID-19 scare as, currently, more than six lakh toilets in rural India have acute water shortage. Around 1,20,000 toilets have no water supply and thousands of toilets are completely abandoned, with collapsing roofs, water pipes in poor shape and soggy, broken doors.

This is primarily the reason for the construction of illegal toilets, as sanitary toilets have become hotbeds of disease. The usage of both dry latrines and hanging toilets puts the communities around them at high risk of illness, beyond COVID-19. Therefore, both the construction and usage of these units need to be eradicated.

In rural India, long power cuts with no water coverage amidst the pandemic have again put the burden of maintaining sanitary toilets on sanitation workers. This is because thousands are displaced again, struggling for a meal a day. As “dry latrines” have been the biggest curse for India’s sanitation workers, these new “dry latrines” will be a fresh weight that they will no longer be able to carry. As toilet usage becomes a problem, another trend is the four-fold increase in open defecation in rural India. These defecation sites are also close to garbage dumps and local water bodies. These dumps contain a large number of used masks, PPE kits and effluents. The pandemic has also forced India’s sanitation workers to discard plastic bags filled with excrement and infected COVID-19 gear found on the periphery of community toilets even in the remotest areas. It is as if people are defecating anywhere except inside the toilets.

It is important to note that there is a stark contrast between urban and rural water and sanitation coverage in India. The dependence on unimproved water sources in rural India even within sanitary toilets increases the need to re-evaluate the obsession with toilet construction in India. Both “value of service” and maintenance systems need to be tackled immediately; first, by re-surveying the state of the toilets that were built 3-5 years ago and earlier.

The sanitation system needs to go hand in hand with the water system, combined with an assessment of sanitation behaviour and sanitation labour reforms in India, at every single step. Small pits filled with human excrement near construction sites in Uttar Pradesh have further highlighted the re-emergence of this pattern in India. In West Bengal, more toilets are found to be constructed as “raised beds with small holes” at the centre. These confinements, known as hanging toilets, are built by families who do not want to use sanitary toilets as they are always filled with excrement and faeces. In Delhi, the extension of Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla landfills serve as a big defecation ground for nearby communities. With a similar pattern of small segregated pits and dry latrines, communities are forced to keep an eye on the ever-shifting piles through every defecation. In Tamil Nadu, locals claim that unused toilets often become playgrounds for wild animals and snakes, just as in Goa. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the toilets in villages have become “death traps” because of the usage of substandard material for construction. Forfeited bills and corruption by contractors keep toilets from having long-lasting infrastructure. Long queues in the semi-urban and rural areas also change sanitation behaviour. In Mizoram, there is a prevalence of unique “tree house” toilets which are like the hanging toilets, but three times higher. Excrement keeps getting filled in open pits on the ground throughout the day.

With no escape from COVID-19, the toilet traditions have highlighted major loopholes in India’s sanitation system, where the focus is majorly on building new infrastructure. The question is how this government will respond to these new problems when they have never focused on actual toilet usage in rural India. Having 46,000 new dry latrines during a pandemic shows the problem with only focusing on toilet numbers. The lockdowns have again multiplied the sanitation struggle in India, so much so that people are fearing the outcome of using these toilets every day.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 29, 2021 under the title ‘The dirty truth’. The writer is the National Convener of Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union.

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