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India refutes reports that question efforts on sanitation, water

New Delhi : Two recent reports with adverse comments on the Centre's ambitious Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM) have raked up a controversy that refuses to die despite a stern rejection by the Union Government.

Experts say the reports have projected a somewhat distorted picture of the state of sanitation and water access in India and also undermined the Government's efforts aimed at achieving the objective of eliminating open defecation by October 2019.

In the first instance, the Indian Government has firmly rejected the claims of United Nations Special Rapporteur Leo Heller, who had said that the Swachh Bharat Mission and rural and urban drinking water programmes had failed to conform to the UN's Human Rights Criteria and Principles.

Heller had called for “a human rights perspective” in national programmes on water and sanitation while presenting a preliminary report of his official visit to India, but, said at a press conference: “Everywhere I went, I saw the logo of the Clean India Mission — Gandhiji’s glasses. In its third year of implementation, now is a critical time to replace the lens of those glasses with the human rights lens”.

Also, the focus on constructing toilets “should not overshadow the focus of drinking water provision for all and it should not involuntarily contribute to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those specific caste-affected groups engaged in manual scavenging, or those who are marginalised such as ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas", he added.

Heller's comments were strongly condemned within and outside the Government given the stature of Mahatma Gandhi in India.

The Union Government said the world knows that the Mahatma was the foremost proponent of human rights, including for sanitation, his unique and special focus. Gandhiji’s glasses, the unique logo of the Swachh Bharat Mission, epitomise core human rights principles.

According to the report given by Heller, who is expected to submit a final report to the UN Human Rights Council at its 39th session in September 2018, many of the “open defecation-free” certified areas were found to be not 'de facto' open defecation-free, in many cases because the slums or schools didn’t have any functional toilets.

The report also thrashed a 2016 and 2017 Quality Council of India report that said 91 per cent toilets that had been built were being used.

Heller’s report quoted a WaterAid study which suggested “only 33 per cent of toilets were deemed sustainably safe (eliminating risks of contamination in the long term); 35 per cent were safe, but would need major upgrades to remain safe in the long term; and 31 per cent were unsafe, creating immediate health hazards”.

Heller had reportedly pointed out how the Mission has had “an unintended consequence of the desire to obtain rewards, some aggressive and abusive practices” such as revoking of ration cards, electricity services being cut off in case of overdue energy bills, as also shaming and penalising of those defecating in the open.

The report stated that provision of water has received less attention in the Mission. “This raises serious concerns: in India, unsafe water is responsible for 68 per cent more diarrhoea deaths than unsafe sanitation,” the report of the UN Special Rapporteur said.

However, the Government has called the report "inaccurate", "sweeping" and "biased".

The Cente also rejected Heller's assertions that human rights principles have not been properly addressed in India’s water and sanitation programmes and said that the Swachh Bharat Mission and the rural and urban drinking water programmes fully conformed to the Human Rights criteria and principles as established by the UN system.

UNSR has failed to acknowledge the paradigm shift in national sanitation policy which has moved from construction of toilets to open defecation free communities and seems to be looking at the SBM from a tinted lens, said a statement issued by the Centre.

The Centre has said that Heller also attempted to question the findings of a third party, 1,40,000 household national survey by the Quality Council of India that usage of toilets was above 91 per cent, by misleadingly comparing it with a survey of only 1,024 households by Water Aid which focused on toilet technology and not on usage.

The UNSR also claimed that there is inadequate attention and funds for water supply, whereas the reality is that since the launch of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) in 2009, Rs 1,20,000 crore has been invested by Centre and states into rural drinking water.

Additionally, Rs 40,000 crore has been invested by the Central Government on urban water supply since 2005.

The Centre said that it is committed to human rights in general and particularly in the water supply and sanitation sectors and strongly rejects the claims in the UNSR’s report and press statements.

The Government also maintained that international charity organisation WaterAid’s comments on Swachh Bharat are “Out of order”.

WaterAid had recently released a report entitled “Out of order – The state of the world’s toilets 2017”.

The report said India remains the nation with the most people without toilets. Despite immense progress through the Swachh Bharat Mission, more than 732 million people still suffer fear and indignity of relieving themselves in the open or in unsafe or unhygienic toilets – a situation that is worse for women and girls.

WaterAid’s third-annual analysis of the world’s toilets was released ahead of World Toilet Day and revealed that globally, one in three people still have nowhere decent to go to the toilet, and demonstrates how women and girls bear the brunt of this global crisis.

"For more than 1.1 billion women and girls, this injustice results in an increased risk of poor health, limited education, lost opportunities, vulnerability and embarrassment of having to go out in the open".

But, the report also said that reaching everyone with basic services is a huge challenge, but change is happening. "Strong political will and sanitation financing has helped put India in the top 10 for reducing open defecation and improving access to basic sanitation. According to Government data, 52 million household toilets have been built between October 2014 and November 2017".

WaterAid India Chief Executive VK Madhavan said, "While India is making rapid progress in improving sanitation under the ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission, we need to ensure inclusion, recognizing the importance of safe and accessible toilets specific to the needs of the differently abled, the elderly, the poorest, as well as women and adolescent girls".

"The lack of toilets affects women and girls disproportionately at every stage in their life, increasing their health risks manifold, while adversely impacting on their safety and dignity. We need to recognise that ending open defecation is but one step towards ensuring safely managed and sustainable sanitation.”

A statement issued by the Government states that the WaterAid report quotes data from the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), which extrapolates sanitation data based on available data from past studies between 2000 and 2015. This means it misses out on most of the progress under the Swachh Bharat Mission which aims to eradicate open defecation from the country by October 2019.

"Recognizing that such an unprecedented commitment to bringing so many people out of open defecation in such a short span of time has no parallels anywhere in the world, the JMP, in the same report, inserted a special section with high praise for the rapid results being seen under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and stating that their report does not capture a lot of the work done since 2015, and hence the data is not up to date", the official statement added.

However, this point has not been mentioned in the report by WaterAid, thereby misleading the readers into believing that this is the present status of sanitation in India. The disparity between the numbers mentioned in this report and reality is extremely stark.

"This report says that “355 million women and girls are still waiting for a toilet”. This is a total departure from reality. The same JMP report confirms that as on June 2017, the total number of people defecating in the open in India has reduced to 350 million, and this has further come down to below 300 million people as on November 2017. The report also mentions that 56 per cent of people in India lack access to safe sanitation, whereas the present number is down to about 28 per cent. In fact, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation maintains a detailed household level database of sanitation coverage on its website, which is also open to the public", said the Government.

"Such statements from an organization of the credibility of WaterAid are factually incorrect and irresponsible, especially since the WaterAid India team has been working closely with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin, and is fully aware of both the ground work, macro statistics and overall progress. It is unfortunate that these facts were not been communicated by WaterAid India to their global counterparts", the statement added.

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