Improved Sanitation in India

by Chloe Gummer on February 22, 2014

Scene of four pit latrines from Slumdog Millionaire

Scene of four pit latrines from Slumdog Millionaire

The first time I saw the film Slumdog Millionaire, and the several times I have seen it since, I am always shocked to watch the scene that takes place in the elevated open pit latrines on the outskirts of the slums of Mumbai. Though the film presents this scene with humor, it provides a momentary glimpse into the sanitation reality for millions of Indians.

In 2009, I moved to a small city in central India as a youth exchange student. Driving home from the airport to my new home for the next 11 months, one of my first sights was of a man openly defecating in a green field on the side of the road. It wasn’t until years later when I took a course in International Public Health that I thought about this experience from a public health perspective.

These two scenes from India are examples of what the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program considers unimproved sanitation facilities. Improved facilities include: flush toilets, piped sewer systems, septic tanks, flush/pour to pit latrines, ventilated improved pit latrines, pit latrines with a slab, and composting toilets. Unimproved facilities include: flush/pour to elsewhere, pit latrines without a slab, buckets, hanging toilets or hanging latrines, or no facility (an open bush or field).

Data from UNICEF from 2010 shows that in India, over 90 percent of the population has access to improved drinking water sources. Meanwhile, only 58 percent of the urban populations have access to improved sanitation facilities, and 23 percent of rural populations have access to improved sanitation. So what does this mean? Why do toilets matter?

Toilets matter because improved sanitation facilities physically separate human waste from water sources, soil, and food. This greatly improves human health, and reduces illness from water and sanitation related diseases, including but not limited to diarrhea, cholera, and malaria. In fact, UNICEF reports that one gram of feces can contain 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 parasite eggs. In addition to these diseases, UNICEF also reports that in India, “poor sanitation is responsible for the stunting of 62 million children under the age of 5”, who may never develop physically or mentally to their full potential.

The good news is that there are a growing number of innovative sanitation programs and solutions in India, and that sanitation is improving across the country, in both urban and rural locations. In 2000, 25.5 percent of the national population had access to improved sanitation facilities. Ten years later, that number had risen to 34.2 percent.

One innovative solution is a challenge sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science and Technology, and Government of India to design a ‘next generation toilet’. The winning designs of this competition held this past August will ultimately be adopted in communities around the world. With the pressure of the Millennium Development Goals finishing next year in 2015, I think many countries, including India, will welcome these new and innovative solutions to improving sanitation.





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