Tension hung heavy in the air on April 19, Thursday. Sharp at 8.07 am, as a giant ball of fire leapt out of an ignited Agni V ballistic missile which left in the next lightning moment the launch pad for its 5000-km long journey, everyone felt relieved at the Wheeler Island off Odisha coast. But none as much as an unidentified open defecator in a nearby remote area of the Balasore district that morning. The unexpected light and sound the missile made helped him explicably. Startled for a moment, he realised the very next one that he was done for the day. As the scientific fraternity at the defence research and development organisation (DRDO) facility in Odisha stood up in exultation of the successful launch of the 50-tonne, 17.5-metre-high missile, so did he and walked back to his village, with a spring in his feet and whistle in the air.
Two months later, when rural development minister launches DRDO’s first green toilet very close to where that open defecator happened to be that day, the minister says that there is no use blasting Agni missiles if the sanitation problem is not solved. What he meant is that an amount equal to what is spent on security should be allocated for public welfare activities. “The budget of rural development department is Rs 99,000 crore while we spent double the amount on defence with a budget of Rs 193,000 crore,” he adds.
Our open defecator does not understand budgetary allocations, but he is puzzled by the minister’s logic, even if not the intent. He also understands his own part in earning shame for the country (according to a recent survey, India has 58 percent of its population, the highest in the world, defecating in the open). But he is not an open defecator by choice. If he could manage a toilet in his house, he would. Like the government of the country, he too has his priorities listed in a carefully chosen order. Food comes second, shelter third, health fourth and so on and so forth. But even in his list, security features on the top of everything else.
Out of the 2,40,000 gram panchayats in the country, the rural development ministry will install these DRDO-developed eco-toilets in 1,000 gram panchayats with a budget of Rs 400 crore. This is 240th part of the job done. Rest remains. If this (sanitation) is so important, it is at a woefully slow pace. Secondly, the biggest challenge in all government schemes is the implementation part. It remains to be seen if e-toilets do not become victims of the government’s colossal apathy which in the past has paved with its best intentions so many roads to perdition.
The government, like our open defecator, too has its list of priorities. It took the government to give every man a mobile phone less than 15 years. Notebooks and iPads in north and TVs and refrigerators in down south are the latest poll promises which political parties make to woo the electorate. Toilets somehow are too boring to bring voters to booths. Under various other schemes in the past 3-4 decades, villages in the country were given toilets which were never revisited by the officials. What goes unmentioned is that in rural areas, there is resistance among people to adopt and use toilets. To counter that, a people's movement is required as part of a larger agenda of social and economic change. This type of movement is not on the agenda of political parties, not even the backward caste parties. That is the travesty of intent. Some day when the government, as also the political parties, upgrades toilets on its priority lists, everything else will fall in line. Then nobody will have to banish missiles to build toilets.