By David Asta Alares
New Delhi, Oct 2 (efe-epa).- Sixteen-year-old Poonam would prefer not to go out into the fields to defecate in the darkness and instead have a toilet inside her home, located close to the polluted Yamuna River in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
“The lack of toilets is a big problem here,” the teenager told EFE in front of an improvised school under a flyover, where she comes every morning with dozens of classmates to receive minimum education before helping her parents in the fields.
It is hard to believe that the secluded agricultural area located next to Mayur Vihar, a middle-class neighborhood in the capital, is less than half an hour’s drive from the Indian parliament in the heart of the capital.
“It’s bit like a jungle around here,” Poonam said, her face covered with a dark scarf that served as a mask.
“Going (to defecate out in the open) is a huge problem in the day. We only get there at night, and even at night, it is really scary to go alone,” she added.
Her plight and that of her neighbors belie the Indian government’s claim made exactly a year ago that the country had become open-defecation free.
“It was not easy to free 600 million people from open defecation in 4-5 years. But India achieved it,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared at the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday.
Official figures from the “Swachh Bharat” (Clean India) mission, launched in 2014, paint a dazzling picture: More than a hundred million toilets built in six years and a map of India on the Swachh Bharat Mission website that kept track of the campaign progress turned green in entirety to indicate that the whole country was officially free from this practice.
The large-scale construction of toilets has helped reduce open-air defecation that causes infectious diseases. But experts emphasize that the goal was still far from being achieved.
Dev Pal Shakya, a field researcher of the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), told EFE that no toilets had been built on the banks of the Yamuna because, in theory, those living there are supposed to be evicted as per a court order.
In other parts of the country, it is a different situation.
“In the first phase, there was only a rapid construction of toilets,” Susmita Sengupta, an expert at the Center for Science and Environment, told EFE.
“So we have seen that many toilets are locked, in many toilets, they keep animals, they keep hay… It’s not a proper toilet. And people don’t want use those toilets,” she added.
Official data and studies also point to this.
A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), presented to the parliament last week, found that 30 percent of the more than 2,000 toilets examined in schools were not in use for different reasons.
Moreover, 11 percent of the toilets declared finished were incomplete or did not exist.
What do toilets have to do with religion?
The problem of open defecation affects India more than other poorer countries, and according to experts, it cannot be understood without taking into account the ideas of ritual purity in Hinduism.
“Factors such as ritual purity and the caste system realized in fears about latrine pits filling up and needing emptying combined with high population density to make open defecation a potent threat to health and well-being in rural India,” said an article “Revisiting Open Defecation” published in the Indian journal Economic and Political Weekly in May.