In a holistic appeal, the targets addressed issues of poverty and hunger, primary education, gender inequality, infant mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS and malaria, environmental sustainability and global partnerships.
The goal on issues of environmental sustainability was aimed at reducing loss of natural resources, biodiversity and the world’s slum population. Another goal related to addressing issues of drinking water and sanitation: half the proportion of population is without access to sustainable drinking water and safe sanitation. Alongside, a WHO/Unicef-organised Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) was also established to keep tabs on the global progress of MDGs. India committed to the MDG in 2001.
At a time of appalling natural resources depletion, extreme climatic shifts coupled with population explosion, the MDGs were instituted as reality checks worldwide. Now, after a quarter of a century of assessment, it is time to take inventory of ‘achievements’ and many would be pleased to learn that India has met the goal relating to drinking water.
About 94% of the Indian population currently has access to sustainable drinking water as against about 74% in 1990. Among the South Asian countries — a cluster of nine countries grouped by the JMP — India rank fifth, behind Sri Lank (100% population coverage) Bhutan (100%), Maldives (99%) and Iran (96%). Afghanistan (55%) bottoms the list while Pakistan and Bangladesh register around 91% and 87%, respectively.
But what is disappointing is the utter disarray in the sanitation sector. Over 2.4 billion people — 68% of the global population — currently lack access to improved sanitation facilities globally and JMP estimates reveal that bulk of these ‘deprived’ population mostly populate three regions: South Asia (accounting for about 40% of the deprived population); Sub-Saharan Africa; and East Asia.
The situation is pretty glum for India as only about 40% of the population in the country currently have access to safe sanitation facilities. The 2011 Census report suggests that about 67% of rural households in India practice open defecation. Open defecation is rampant in Jharkhand (92%), Madhya Pradesh (86%), Chhattisgarh (85%), Odisha (84%), Bihar (81%), Rajasthan (79%), and Uttar Pradesh (77%).
All in all, in about 18 states/UTs in India, open defecation is practiced in over half the rural households. To add to the grievance, in the South Asian cluster, India currently (2015) occupies the eighth position (out of nine), barely a nose ahead of Afghanistan (32% population with safe sanitation facilities). Countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives and Iran are way ahead of the curve offering it to over 90% of their population. Even Bangladesh and Pakistan score it for well over 60%.
Out of all these, a major observation that cropped up is the yawning gap between urban and rural households in terms of sustainable infrastructural facilities. Globally, about 91% of the urban population have access to sustainable drinking water as compared to about 84% of their rural counter parts. Similarly, about 82% urban population around the world have safe sanitation facilities against only 51% for the rural areas.
According to the recent JMP reports, 63% (growing from 49% in 1990) of the urban population in India currently enjoy safe sanitation facilities as compared to only about 29% (from 6% in 1990) of the rural masses. Of course, the rate of improvement has been significantly steeper for the rural areas but nonetheless, the final figures for rural India fall way short of their urban counterparts.
What leads to rampant open defecation practices? Recent studies brought to light some interesting caveats. Obviously, at its core sits the issue of inadequate/inappropriate sanitation facilities in rural India. But there also are issues, pertaining to human behavioural traits, often bordering on long-term cultural and ritualistic beliefs. For example, having latrine facilities within premises is often considered impure for the household as it comes in the way of practicing religious processes.
So effectively, even after having indoor facilities, dwellers still indulge in outdoor means. Often, the villagers are not so aware at all about the health risks ensuing from open defecation practices. Instead, latrine pits on premises, many a time, are believed to be breeding ground for insects (especially mosquitoes) and thus ‘unhygienic’. Interestingly, a chance at social connectivity is another strange reality. Rural folks often view open defecation practices as an opportunity to maintain social liaison and stay abreast with the day-to-day village goings-on.
So, what’s the way out? Of course, constructing more latrines of appropriate quality and quantity is one way to deal with it. And as part of the Clean India (Swachh Bharat) programme, the government has taken up the challenge. But some studies reiterate that this alone might not be enough. The puzzle being, how to fight an idea (age-old socio-cultural/behavioural barrier) with another idea (environmental hygiene and public health)? Not an easy one to resolve, of course.
Past the realm of the MDGs, we now have entered the SDG (Sustainable Development Goal). But we have given ourselves 17 targets with a timeframe of 15 years (2015-2030). Is it too ambitious? Especially as several of the MDGs, including parts of target of environmental sustainability, stay way beyond reach?
Perhaps, it is time we admitted that the onus is as much on the government, how we perceive it beyond the matter of dialectics, rallies, petitions or hunger strikes. It might sound too trivial but the reality calls for it nonetheless: as responsible citizens, we would need to build mass awareness by conducting intensive health campaigns/workshops against open defecation practices and encourage the rural communities to use latrines.