If it’s a choice between a toilet or a mobile phone, which will you choose?

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

This public sanitation block opposite the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan School in Srirampuram, Bangalore provides a basic facility denied to many others in India and elsewhere in the world.

I remember that during my primary school years many teachers imposed a simple rule in class that was no doubt intended to ensure a minimising of disruption to lessons. The order of the day was that if you wanted to go to the toilet during lesson time, you must raise your hand and ask permission. The implementation of this rule appeared to vary according to the interpretation or maybe in some cases the mood of the individual teacher. In my school experience most were sympathetic and would grant permission, often with a reminder to “wash your hands and hurry back”, though I do remember one particular teacher whose response was usually something along the lines of “it will be playtime soon – (possibly half an hour away) – you can wait until then.” This could have dire consequences, and I do recall an occasion when I found myself seated next to a very distressed friend who being unable to contain herself until playtime experienced the inevitable embarrassment attendant upon sitting in a puddle on her chair.

Hopefully today’s teachers in English schools are far more sympathetic to the natural needs of their pupils and no longer see these as an impediment to their teaching. Though I suspect that there may still be a few who see the discomfort of a child as being insignificant when measured alongside the importance of their lesson content.

This may seem an odd topic on which to reflect in this blog, but I have been moved to write after reading an article in The Hindu newspaper (September 19, 2014) and also reading extracts from a speech made by the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Mr Jan Eliasson, in which he emphasised that 2.5 billion people still lack the “improved sanitation facilities” which were a priority established in the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

It would seem to me that adequate sanitation, defined under the Millennium Development Goals as those that “hygienically separate human excreta from human contact,” should be seen as a basic necessity if reasonable standards of health and human dignity are to be attained. However, the article in The Hindu reveals that a survey conducted as recently as 2013, shows that “10 per cent of elementary schools (nearly 2 lakh schools) in India still do not have functional toilets.” This is clearly a concern in respect of the welfare and health of both students and teachers, but is also a critical factor as India strives to implement the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) as the leading legislation for achieving education for all children. This is a fact acknowledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who vowed to improve this situation in his speech to teachers and children delivered this year on Teachers’ Day, 5th September.

There is a strange irony in the fact that some politicians and policy makers in India are cited by The Hindu newspaper as believing that “no correlation could be found between the presence of toilets and learning levels of children in school; therefore toilets are an unnecessary expense,” and that “since most poor rural children did not have toilets at home, they would not miss them in school either. What they needed was education, not toilets”. As the newspaper article rightly points out, the lack of even the most rudimentary toilet facilities in schools is a major inhibitor of school attendance and an affront to the dignity of students and teachers alike. To deny a correlation between the most fundamental sanitation and access to schooling demonstrates a significant lack of credibility amongst some policy makers.

Furthermore, where toilets are provided these are often inadequate and do not provide segregated facilities for girls, resulting in many students feeling vulnerable and at the very least embarrassed, when needing to fulfil the most basic of human functions. An examination of complaints made to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in India over a two year period, indicates that a significant number related to the administration of corporal punishment concerned incidents where students had been subjected to physical chastisement following “toileting accidents.” Both lack of toilet facilities and corporal punishment have been identified as a major factor in the drop-out of girls from Indian schools.

It is to be hoped that Mr Modi’s speech may lead to some action. However, it would appear that at present  the three main government departments, the Ministry  of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) who could make a major difference, prefer to spend their time arguing about who should take responsibility for improving this situation.

One could be forgiven for thinking that action in this area might be high on the agenda. However, a shocking revelation from Mr Eliasson in his speech is the fact, that in much of the world more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. I wonder what this tells us about the priorities established in today’s society? If you had to make a choice between a mobile phone and a clean and easily accessible toilet which would you choose?