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?


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

    • I would certainly prefer a clean toilet…
      The task is mammoth and the govt alone can’t do it.
      We need NGO’s like Rotary International and Lion Club to come forward to help in local funding and logistics

      • Hi Anil,
        I agree that this is a responsibility far wider than that of government. However, until they set an example there will be little movement from others

        • I agree with you Richard. Particularly because private schools (for some odd reasons called public schools) in India have the means and ‘influence’ to get things done whereas government schools have the means (government allocated funds) but not the influence/will to get it done-it is often nobody’s business. As you said, if the government sets an example and put in place incentives for NGOs or private players to get involved, it will be much easier. Then again, I personally believe, the problem we have in India is not lack of wealth but distribution of that wealth ,honest dedication and accountability. Ironically, India has hundreds of millionaires but millions of children study in schools without proper sanitation!!

          • Hi Benny,
            I suppose the provision of toilets is not quite so prestigious as the provision of computers or some other modern resource. This may be part of the reason it is difficult to get the millionaires you mention involved. However, I do feel that many people in India have been too quiet on this issue and that has not aided progress.

  1. Hi Richard – Still reading your blog regularly! This post, along with others, is a good reminder to me of the ‘first world problems’ we often do a lot of hand wringing about in Canadian schools. The system here is far from perfect, but we really are very, very, very lucky not to have to worry about fundamental issues such as sanitation.

  2. Yes Tim, we certainly are lucky. Whilst we regularly moan about the societies we live in we are fortunate in not facing such challenges as these.

  3. Hello, Richard! When I went to US, I was amazed at the restrooms available while we travelled on road. They were so clean and so many available at the right intervals. Unfortunately in India, toilets are supposed to be like that – dirty! I was very hopeful when the nirmala toilet scheme started but soon I found they were hardly cleaned. Even today when we go to any place in India by road, the biggest fear we have is will we find decent toilets on the way. I remember this incident – I was travelling to Chennai in AC 2 tier compartment. As soon as we got into the train, I could get a very bad smell. I went to examine the toilets and was taken aback, it was not cleaned at all. I immediately went to the in charge and told him. He said that is all they can do, if I want a cleaner toilet, I can carry disinfectant and clean. I decided that from then on I would carry a disinfectant and a tissue roll whenever I travel by train. I thought aircrafts would have clean toilets but no, jet airways toilets in the aircraft are very dirty. So, toilets are not seen as space that needs to be kept clean. Nobody really cares, they either do not use public toilets or compromise by using them in the same condition. Even schools that boast of huge campus and land have poor toilet facilities from the cleanliness standpoint.

  4. Hi Savitha,
    I find it interesting that in the early years of the twentieth century Gandhi experimented with the design of easily constructed toilets but was never taken seriously. In the UK the playwright George Bernard Shaw ran a major campaign for the provision of public toilets at the same time and seemed to have had a lot more success. What a great shame that something so fundamental appears to be a source of such challenge. – see you next week

  5. Clean toilets are allergic to anything Indian I think. Its not a toilet until its dirty!! Even go to an Indian restaurant abroad and in many places you’ll find the same!!
    yes people’s priorities are twisted!!

  6. Hi Jayashree,
    So often this comes down to personal responsibility. I know that in India for too long cleaning tasks were regarded as the responsibility of people from lower socio-economic groups and castes. Despite the work of Ambedkar, Gandhi and other like minded individuals this continues to be a part of the problem.

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