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India and the Urgent Need for Sanitation Laws

Development of good habits is a basic value we have all been hearing about since our childhood. However, habits once acquired are hard to quit.

I can recall an anecdote, which read, "an elephant was tied to chains pegged into the ground when she was little. She became habitual of it, never realising that a majestic creature as herself can pull the chain out of the ground with persistent efforts once it has grown."

The Delhi High Court's judgment in 2014 answering a writ petition citing hurt sentiments reads, "In spite of putting photographs of Gods on walls, the photographic evidence shows that the pressure on the bladder is blatantly relieved by virtually peeing on the photographs of one's God." The Court thus concluded that it cannot stop men from putting a "lock" on their zip when they step out. Such is the condition of public hygiene in our national capital itself.

A good habit takes time, persistence and will power. Such will power was shown by Mangal Pandey, a name almost every Indian speaks of as a habit whenever there is a discussion on our national movement for freedom. India was becoming habitual (albeit begrudgingly) of foreign rule, Mangal Pandey's mutiny evoked a revolution. Such a mutiny is needed in the present time against unsanitary practices to again evoke a national movement of a kind towards hygiene. Otherwise we'll continue to live surrounded by filth, again, begrudgingly. Most bad habits are accrued early in life and just as a child needs to be force fed bitter medicine to get rid of a disease, India needs a law to forcefully inculcate good sanitary habits among its citizens. By not enacting a law for it after more than 70 years of independence, we are committing a historical wrong.

Personal vs. Public Hygiene While our Indian ethos prescribes strict personal hygiene, public hygiene takes a back seat. Wherever we go and whichever mode of transport we use; be it hotels, restaurants (kitchens), hospitals, trains, roads, everywhere we find litter, spit stains, paper or single-use plastic cups, chips wrappers, etc, people are just 'used' to dirtying it. Spitting in open can cause pulmonary tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza (including swine flu) etc. Infants and elderly are at a higher risk. Severe diseases acquired at a young age can leave a child with lifelong disabilities. It is not only a personal loss but also a loss to country's valuable human resource. Diseases contracted during the younger years of a person affects the economic activity and potentially the GDP of a nation. Globally, World Bank estimates that leaving people with disability outside the economy translates into a foregone GDP of 5 to 7%.

Steps Taken The previous government launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014 to make our country open defecation free. At the Mahatma Gandhi International Sanitation Convention, our PM stated that 4Ps are needed to clean the world: Political leadership, Public funding, Partnership and People's participation. As per the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2018-19, 93% of households had access to toilets, 96% of these used them. A report by UN & WHO says that 2/3rd of 650 million people who have stopped open defecation between 2000 and 2017 belong to India. India is almost single-handedly responsible for dragging the world towards achieving at least one Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), that of ending open defecation. However, another report by Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e.) says open defecation is still above 40% in Open Defecation Free (ODF) states in 2018 and 25% of the people owning toilets still prefer to go in the open.

The government has proposed ODF+ (urination) & ODF++ (safe management of faecal sludge & sewage) status for states that have achieved ODF status in order to maintain the momentum gained towards Swachhta. Swachh Surveskshan has been conducted by Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs in past two years. Many other social activities are being undertaken by the government to bring behavioural change towards sanitary habits. Several rules towards garbage disposal (solid, plastic, e-waste) have been notified. USAID is working with Government of India and other partners to create awareness and generate demand for solutions towards water sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Way Forward Despite all the efforts undertaken, I am sure all of us have noticed that there is still a large room left for change. Our efforts require a "bold push" to bring about a visible change. Right to health is a fundamental right under Article 21 of our Constitution and it is high time that a legislation should be brought in to secure this right of our citizens. People in India respond to forced changes as we have seen through demonetisation of 2016. A dedicated TV channel or compulsory 15 minutes during prime time on news channels for good sanitary practices can be undertaken. Parliament can take a leaf out of Singapore's efforts and can bring a law to make spitting, improper garbage disposal and other unhygienic practices a civil offence with appropriate monetary penalties and State governments can follow the model accordingly. Where monetary fines cannot be implemented, subordinate courts can order compulsory community service. Fines should be properly implemented, revenues from which can be utilised by local governing bodies towards behavioural change activities like street plays. Clean India will also lead to increased tourism and lead us closer to our PM's goal of a New India and an economy of $5 trillion by 2024-25.

Mahatma Gandhi had once said, "Sanitation is more important than independence. So long as you do not take the broom and the bucket in your hands, you cannot make your towns and cities clean."

Let's pledge to give our country true Swaraj on 150th birth anniversary of the father of our nation and realise his dream of total sanitation for all.


- Akshay Pathak


@Akshay_Pathak5 on Twitter


#sanitation #India #UN #SustainableDevelopmentGoals #Gandhi #opendefecation #public #hygiene #laws

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Disclaimer: The Relevant Indian is inspired by the works of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Author, Diplomat and Member of Parliament for Thiruvanathapuram.  It is however, independent of him and neither seeks nor receives instructions or guidelines on any content published. Contributors sharing their opinions and thoughts do so in their individual capacities.

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