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The fight to end open defecation in India

The Indian government has brought toilets to millions but many still suffer poor sanitation

The fight to end open defecation in India

Geeta Devi standing near her house in the Mukundpur slum in New Delhi. Around half of the community’s 200,000 residents defecate in the open. (ucanews.com photo)

Braving the early morning winter chill, Geeta Devi wakes at 4 am and walks nearly a kilometer to find a bush or piece of farm land to relieve herself before everyone in the area gets up.

Devi is accompanied by her two daughters because they do not have the luxury of a toilet. The place where they go is the home of rats and snakes. Drunken men have raped women there.

"It is not a problem for men but we need privacy and safety, which is why we get up very early. It is becoming a concern for me since my daughters are growing up," Devi, who works as a domestic worker, told ucanews.com.

Devi, who lives in the Mukundpur slum on the outskirts of the Indian capital New Delhi, said her earnings along with those of her husband, who irons clothes for a living, is not enough to construct a toilet at home.

"We have to look after two daughters and two sons. Where is the money to build the toilet on this meager income?" said Devi, whose total family income amounts to 8,000 rupees (US$119) a month.

Devi is not alone. Out of 200,000 people living in the slum, half lack this basic facility. Some have constructed temporary toilets with no roof and an old curtain in place of a door.

These temporary toilets do not have proper sewage disposal systems and the excreta flows into open drains, leading to unhygienic conditions in the area.

Meena Devi, who has a temporary toilet at home, said that besides the safety and hygiene problems with open defecation, the lack of open spaces is also a serious concern.

"There are not many fields. Houses are coming up fast on empty stretches of land. There are also no public toilets in the area. Survival is becoming difficult," she said.

More than half of the 800 million people who live in rural India defecate in the open because only 45 percent of them have access to a toilet. The figure is higher in urban areas, about 88 percent, according to a 2015 report by the National Sample Survey Office.

Ending open defecation in India is one of the priorities of the Indian government. They aim to eliminate it by 2019.

There has been some success already. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October declared all 180 cities and towns in Gujarat state and all 110 cities and towns in Andhra Pradesh state to be free of open defecation.

Over 9.7 million individual toilets have been constructed by the government across the country with Rajasthan topping the list with over 1.9 million new toilets followed by West Bengal with over 1.2 million.

Chetnalaya, the social service wing of Delhi Archdiocese, along with the international Christian housing organization, Habitat, is helping Delhi’s urban poor access this basic facility.

Chetnalaya is carrying out a survey in the slums to identify the houses that need a toilet so Habitat can build them. So far, 54 houses in the Mukundpur slum and 45 households in a slum near Jafrabad have been earmarked for the service.

"Hygiene and sanitation is a problem in the slums. Due to open defecation and improper sewage facilities, people contract vector-borne diseases like Chikungunya, dengue and malaria," Nakul Kumar, co-ordinator of Chetnalaya in the Jafrabad slum, told ucanews.com.

Deepa Devi, Chetnalaya’s coordinator in the Mukundpur slum, told ucanews.com that people are aware of the harmful affects of open defecation but do not have any choice.

"That is where we pitch in and help with something they really need," she added.

Neha Kumari, whose house is one of those identified in the survey, told ucanews.com that she is thankful to God that somebody has come forward to help her, "otherwise we would not have been able to do it with our limited resources."

"It is good for our health and that of the neighborhood," she added.

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