Monday, May 27, 2024

Safe urban spaces for all shouldn’t be a long haul

Now and then, what’s obvious needs to be re-stated, lest it’s pushed into the recesses of idle memory, where we keep stuff we know but don’t act upon. So, yes, democracy must be upheld in spirit, not just as a structure, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded us this week. Also, hate speech will diminish if politics and religion are kept apart, as the apex court observed. To this list, we can add another truism. The participation of women in our paid workforce would go up if everyone could count on clean toilets away from home. Right now, India’s gender gap in employment is abysmal. It is not as if hygiene has escaped high-level attention. In pre-internet times, inland letter cards would cite Mahatma Gandhi as saying cleanliness is next to godliness. His actual take on this old adage was nuanced and conditional. “Only when there is both inner and outer cleanliness,” he held, “it becomes next to godliness.” Gandhi’s observations may explain why his spectacles were picked to symbolize Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a high-profile campaign for sanitation flagged off by the Modi government on 2 October 2014. Almost a decade later, this mission still has a long way to go.

Swachh Bharat was begun on an impressive scale. Its mission-control centre looked like a veritable war room, equipped with maps, stretch targets and scoreboards being updated furiously. By official records, over 100 million toilets were built across rural India within a span of five years. And in 2019, just in time for Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the country was declared “open defecation free” (ODF): i.e., no village, district, state or Union territory was said to be left that still had folks defecating outdoors. Absolute statements, of course, are hard to defend because all it takes is one example to prove it false. So we also had party-poopers who reported a return to open fields once those latrines got clogged or over-soiled. Predictably, sewage failures started showing up. No matter. The mission embarked on Phase II, crafted to sustain behavioural shifts by focusing on waste disposal, litter reduction and mop-ups of stagnant water. Today, of India’s 594,240 villages, 235,708 are proclaimed on its rural tracker as having ticked its “ODF-plus” status checklist.

Swachh Bharat covers urban India too, with roughly similar aims and guidelines. Yet, women still face not just an acute scarcity of public urinal facilities in cities, but also a risk which does not show up on official data charts: that of acquiring infections from unhygienic lavatories. This is so even of private set-ups, big and small, and acts as a cause of anxiety just about anywhere a woman may need to be (or go). Women who cannot work from home and have less control of their time schedules bear the brunt of it. The ‘it’ here is a broad neglect evident in the poor upkeep of what little one can access for urination or a menstrual-pad change. Be it transport hubs or field-work trips by road, office spaces or institutional premises, what seems lost on male radars can often be a red alert for women. For all the slogans that are reeled out, this is a gap that must be closed for a better chance of closing the one in paid employment, which is among the world’s worst. While complex reasons exist for it, clean washrooms would literally serve as a hygiene factor, a welcome signal in settings that are mostly male-set. We need a genuine focus on equity to prevail—and universally so. Setting this right shouldn’t be such a long haul.

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