Are Toilets Critical?

October 17, 2020

I think my parents would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.” - J. K. Rowling (b.1966), British writer best known for penning the Harry Potter fantasy series.

The key to the executive bathroom (or comfort room or many of its nominal avatars) is the ultimate aspiration of upwardly mobile senior managers. Executive bathrooms have a critical role in corporate ruling dispensation.

Against this background, it is interesting to look at the status quo of bathrooms meant for students and how the candy is snatched away from them.

Indian public sector units claimed to have constructed 1.4 lakh toilets in government schools as part of a Right to Education project, but almost 40% of those surveyed by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) were found to be non-existent, partially constructed, or unused. In an audit report presented in Parliament recently, the CAG said over 70% did not have running water facilities in the toilets, while 75% were not being maintained hygienically.

The Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan was launched by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in September 2014 to meet the Right to Education Act’s mandate that all schools must have separate toilets for boys and girls. Lack of dedicated funds, poor maintenance and poor water availability in toilets were identified as major challenges, and central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) were roped in to bridge the gap over a one year period.

There are 10.8 lakh government schools in India. Overall, more than 1.4 lakh toilets were built by 53 CPSEs. The CAG audit conducted a physical survey of a sample of 2,695 toilets built by these companies in 15 States.

Out of that sample, CPSEs identified but did not construct 83. Another 200 toilets were reported to be constructed, but were non-existent, while 86 toilets were only partially constructed. Another 691 toilets “were found not in use mainly due to lack of running water, lack of cleaning arrangements, damages to the toilets and other reasons like use of toilets for other purposes, toilets locked up, etc,” said the audit report. Thus, almost 40% of toilets were non-existent, partially completed or unused.

Out of the 1,967 coeducational schools surveyed, 99 schools had no functional toilets while 436 had only one functional toilet, meaning that the objective of providing separate toilets for boys and girls was not fulfilled in 27% of the schools, said the CAG.

In order to effectively change the behaviour of students, the project norms required the CPSEs to build toilets with running water and hand washing facilities, and to maintain the toilets for three to five years while charging the annual expenses to their CSR budgets.

However, the survey found that 72% of constructed toilets had no running water facilities inside, while 55% had no hand washing facilities at all. The audit also noticed “cases of defective construction of toilets, non-provision of foundation/ramp/staircase and damaged/overflowed leach pit, which led to ineffective use of toilets,” said the report.

With regard to maintenance and sanitation, 75% of toilets did not follow the norm for daily cleaning at least once a day. The survey found that 715 toilets were not being cleaned at all, while 1,097 were being cleaned with a frequency of twice a week to once a month. “Cases of non-provision of soap, bucket, cleaning agents and disinfectants in toilets and inadequate cleanliness of pathway were also noticed,” said the report.

While this situation hurts the dumb-driven students, who are ignorant about their entitlement and deprivation, they are totally ignorant about the fact-findings of CAG.

But the problem spills over beyond the confines of protected schools and becomes a national image (shame) issue. Here is an instance.

I once travelled from Mumbai to Bangalore by air. I sat next to a gentleman who was No. 2 honcho in an Indian world-class conglomerate. He was hosting/escorting a group of foreign industrialists and business leaders to his company’s industrial and architectural showpiece in suburban Chennai, close to the airport. I said: “Why this detour to Chennai via Bangalore?” He said it was to save the cultural shock the visitors would have if they are exposed to the open defecation along the Western Express Highway which they had to pass through on the way to the conglomerate’s downtown corporate headquarters in Mumbai.

Once the visitors were sensitized, and reached the corporate’s show-piece campus, the high-profile visitors were easy and malleable. But, how many Indian corporates can indulge in such luxuries?

There is an alternative of course. This was followed by Prime Minister Modi when he had to escort, earlier in 2020, President Trump from the airport to the stadium, in Ahmedabad, where the latter was promised to be cheered by the largest crowd Trump had ever encountered. A wall was built along the motorcade route so that Trump didn’t have to see the miserable life in the slums. Never mind the Covid-19 spread that followed the stadium drama.

The subject is open to many views. What are yours? Welcome to Reason. Your response is invited in the format given at the end (Pl. scroll down).


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By John B Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Thu, Oct 22 2020

    Prescilla Madam: Yours is a very relevant question. You can’t clap with one hand. What do bank officials do when they find non-existing wells? Who is in collusion and who is not?

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Thu, Oct 22 2020

    Sir, you are saying that Indian public sector units claimed to have constructed 1.4 lakh toilets in government schools as part of a Right to Education project, but almost 40% of those surveyed by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) were found to be non-existent. In our country the people avail loans for digging wellsand get subsidy. When the Bank officials go for inspection the wells are found to be non-existent. What can we say for this?

  • Rohan, Mangalore

    Wed, Oct 21 2020

    Dear Sir,
    This write up is an eye opener, even in our luxuries we should keep our minds wide open to see the things we perceive do not exist due to our limited reach or skewed exposure... To be more soul searching and enquiring... In the fast lane we tend to forget our humble beginnings, thus a changed lifestyle changes our perception and outlook... Your inspiring write up is an inspiration for more enquiry and help to the needy and fodder for soul searching wherein indeed the problems exist to search them precisely and solve for a better future of the next generation...

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Mon, Oct 19 2020

    Alfresco or open air toilets have Biblical roots as the following sentence reflects.
    “As for some early Old Testament toilet guidance, Deuteronomy 23 instructs the Jewish people to "have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement."
    There is also a story from the animal kingdom. Once, the tiger begged the cat to teach it life-skills. After much pleading the cat agreed and the tiger thought that it learnt all there was to learn from the cat. From then on the tiger’s secret obsession was how to make a meal of the cat. The cat had an instinctive feeling about the tiger’s evil intentions. Finally, one day the tiger jumped to catch the cat but it climbed up a tree in the nick of time. (The cat had scheduled the climbing the tree as the last lesson.)Then it delivered a sermon on loyalty to teachers.
    Then the cat delivered its punch-line (not found in the book versions; but I got it through oral history). From the height of its tree branch it challenged the tiger saying: “From now on you will not even find my shit.” Then on cats started digging a little earth with its claws, did its job and back-filled the dug-out earth.
    It is probably doing this in rural areas even now. But, in urban flats, where they are pets, cats are toilet-trained. It is only the non-pet cats in cities, those who live off the garbage dumps, have no soft ground to dig, in the concrete jungle, and cover their shit.

  • James Fernandes, Barkur/chicago

    Mon, Oct 19 2020

    Train terrestrial as well as aquatic catfish.

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Sun, Oct 18 2020

    P. Monteiro - Bombay.
    Dear Preeth:As a person residing in cities like Bombay, London and Singapore, you have uncanny insights into rural life and their toilet compulsions and the solution thereof.
    Thank you for favouring this column with a weighty response. Pl. be with it as we go along.

  • P. Monteiro, Bombay

    Sun, Oct 18 2020

    I guess for us in India, sanitary protocol & hygiene is a cultural lifestyle legacy which needs to be understood before it's plan to be implementation on such a large scale.
    Through the ages, India has always been an open area lavatory in our rural settings which was & still supports 70-80% of our populace. And it was a sustainable thing, where the earth used to it to get more fertile though the people were also very cognizant of the area to be used as an open lavatory. It was a reserved area and could be designated as the "Public Toilet". Rain & Shine used to ensure it's disposal into the earth with no bad fumes. So the mentality that nature will take care of things as a underlying nature, in my opinion, extends to also when structures toilets are made. Thus the construction &maintenance of it is not considered as a something of importance as in the legacy mindset, it would be taken care naturally. But this being a man-made solution, man had to ensure it's maintenance. This coupled with our natural ability for graft at all levels has led to this situation reported by CAG.
    The economic migration brought these work force with their rural lifestyles to the cities where the people without the privileges of organised housing continued with their daily ablution as from back home. Coupled with our mentality of 'Chalta hai' attitude, it was tolerated and the administration just went on like it didn't matter. Though in Bombay's defence, the morning ablution along the highways has been replaced with riskhaw parking, so possibly like the Ahmedabad wall, things are normal behind it.

  • Rohan, Mangalore

    Sat, Oct 17 2020

    Dear Sir,
    But I really feel we have to improve on the arrival area toilets, the ones in the departure are extraordinary... Why this distinction between toilets? They need to be at par... But are way better than the ones at Laguardia... Peace be to the great soul Mayor Laguardia who envisioned an airport in those years...
    I have seen so many airport toilets all over but nothing can beat the one at Abu Dhabi airport... The chosen Italian marble adorn them. Also it has a feedback button at exit. That's the level of customer satisfaction the very epitome of service...

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel Mangalore

    Sat, Oct 17 2020

    Rohan: I think you hit the nail right when talking about the state of toilets at Indian airports. We can be proud of them.

  • Rohan, Mangalore

    Sat, Oct 17 2020

    Dear Sir,
    There is something with this column that I get to pen the opening comments.
    We in mangalore are fortunate enough to have excellent infrastructure.
    All schools in the vicinity have excellent, clean and well kept facilities.
    Also public utilities in the city and highway are well accessible and maintained.
    At all homes even in the interiors all houses have their own toilets.
    Most of the areas of corporation have underground drainage facilities.
    Once I had a 7 hour wait at Laguardia airport new york and the wash rooms were so stinky I could hardly use them.
    Compared to that any airports in India have plush sparkling wash rooms which are well maintained.
    Also in North India the sulabh sowchalay is a remarkable program where public toilets are set up at all monuments and public places. These are very well maintained.
    I would not go into the number game but have shared my personal experience...
    We are all happy to see you back hearty and healthy as ever...

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