India struggles to supply school toilets for all

Posted: 20 November 2008

Author: Manipadma Jena

"Who will clean my toilet - is the refrain from schools across India. The government cannot clean toilets in thousands of schools, many tucked away in rural corners," says Prashant Panigrahi, Chief Engineer in charge of rural water supply and sanitation in the government of Orissa, a state in the east of the country bordering the Bay of Bengal. "The schools will have to develop their own mechanism to keep their toilets useable," he says - and some are beginning to do just that. But the problem remains a serious one in many Indian states, especially for girls. We are publishing this article to mark this week's World Toilet Day and the 2008 Year of Sanitation.

Maintaining toilets in a hygienic condition has emerged as a major problem in schools across Orissa. But that's just one of the sanitation issues that needs to be addressed urgently - the most basic one of course is building proper and separate toilets for girls and boys and ensuring the supply of piped water to these facilities.

The girls at Kutrukhamar School clean their toilets
The girls at Kutrukhamar School clean their toilets
At Kutrukhamar Upper Primary School in Kalahandi district of Orissa, girls have taken the initiative to clean and maintain their school toilet. Photo credit: Manipadma Jena/WFS
But the good news is that, increasingly, teachers and students in village schools are becoming more actively involved in this issue. Take the case of the students of Kutrukhamar Upper Primary School in the tribal-dominated district of Kalahandi. Not only do the children here keep the toilets clean, some also bring gardening tools from home to maintain a small patch of green into which the grey water from the toilets is channeled.

One of the basic pillars of the central government's primary school campaign, known as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), is community ownership of schools. According to the SSA, school toilets are the responsibility of the teacher-student community; they must keep them clean and in working condition.

In Tareipatpur village, Raghunath Das, 52, one of the two teachers at Anandmaya Primary School, has been responsible for motivating the women of the village to get toilets constructed in the school and in homes. Knowing that the support of mothers would be crucial, Das began attending the meetings of the local women's Self Help Group. There he spoke about the importance of toilets and their impact on children's health. Very soon, the women began to demand that toilets be built at Anandmaya urgently.

The provision of aid for the creation of sanitation infrastructure is demand-based according to government policy. In 2002, with a small UNICEF grant of 9000 rupees (US $180), two toilets were constructed at Anandmaya. Das also formed a School Sanitation Committee - a mandatory requirement under the SSA - comprising two mothers and five students, to ensure that classrooms and toilets were cleaned every day.

Urban neglect

Das's efforts inspired the Village Education Committee, a community body of local government (panchayat) officials, village leaders and parents, which shares administrative powers of the school with the head teacher, to contribute more funds and labour for the school. Today, neighbouring villages are trying to replicate the Tareipatpur success story.

Renovated school latrine
Renovated school latrine
At rural Janla Upper Primary School in Khurda, the dilapilated old latrine for girls is now renovated, thanks to the head teacher's positive efforts for school sanitation and hygiene. Photo credit: Manipadma Jena/WFS
In 2004, Janla Upper Primary School in Janla village of Khurda district had just one defunct toilet, so to relieve themselves girls would run to the pond at the back of the school. By the time they returned half the lesson would be over. Concerned over this, the headmaster decided to mount an awareness campaign in the area so that funds to build new facilities could be gathered. He began an annual school walkathon on sanitation in the nearby five villages and followed it up by weekly school speech competitions on sanitation. He then invited a senior state government engineer to a school function, where students gave speeches on various aspects of sanitation. Impressed by the effort, the official sanctioned funds for two new toilets in the school. Today, Janla Upper Primary School has six toilets, three with piped water.

But while there are inspiring stories from rural Orissa, toilet facilities in urban schools are very poor and the response from teachers, parents and students has been apathetic. This, despite the fact that most urban families have a toilet at home.

The non-availability of piped water supply in schools is a great cause for concern. Almost none of the rural schools are supplied with running water. Some in urban pockets do have regular supply but only for drinking purposes. Water for pour-flush toilets still has to be carried by hand. So, on an average, every time a toilet is used, water has to be lugged in buckets, plastic bath mugs or even empty soft drink bottles from hand pumps located at distances of 50 to 100 metres away.

Of the 300 students at Khandagiri High School in Khurda district, 50 per cent are girls. With the help of donations, two latrines were built in 2006 in a corridor between the school building and the boundary wall. But for two years, the single hand pump that provided the water for cleaning and flushing the toilets has been defunct. The girls are, forced to relieve themselves in the narrow patch outside toilets, overlooked by a new engineering college from where girls have been subject to teasing and harassment. Meanwhile the school's toilets lie choked with rubble.

The school gets an annual contingency fund of Rs 3,500, with further funds available for maintaining toilets. Yet nothings seems to have been done, and the school authorities show little initiative. The few private schools, which have sufficient funds, have shown no interest in using them for sanitation facilities.

Parent's apathy

There are also schools where the toilets may be functional, but the teachers insist on keeping them under lock and key. They argue that when there is no running water, students leave the facilities dirty and unusable. "These locks are in the teachers' mind. They should not be on the toilets," retorts Shikha Nayak, 45, Project Co-ordinator for School Sanitation in the state government.

However, callous school authorities are not always to blame. The apathy of parents to the problem is striking. When a group of girls of Class Ten of Khandgiri High School told their mothers about their toilet troubles, they were asked to 'adjust'. Most are too embarrassed to talk about sanitation concerns in public. The consequences of this collective failure are serious. Lack of toilets is one of the major reasons for the high drop out rate among girl students. The SSA campaign provides funds for drinking water and toilets in each school in the country but Orissa has made slow progress. From 2004-05 to 2008, the state has only achieved 58 per cent coverage with a dismal 12 per cent of facilities catering to girls separately. Compare this to Chandigarh, which tops the list with 89 per cent toilets for girls. Even a state like Uttar Pradesh, with its own developmental problems, has done better: 69 per cent schools here have toilets for girl students.

According to targets set by the Orissa state government, separate toilets are to be provided for girls in all upper primary and high schools. This means that Orissa would need a total of 70,000 toilets for its 51,772 government and aided schools. Today, the state has managed to build only a little over half this number.

Source: Women's Feature Service