By Jennifer Igwe
The scene unfurled at Holumbi Kalan Phase 2, New Delhi, lndia. The six-year-old boy shot out of the ramshackle building, (a shanty, really), like a bolt of thunder. Despite the fairly cold temperature, he was sweating and shaking. He was obviously pressed, and he urgently needed to answer the call of nature. The urgency with which he ran out of his shanty home was a reflection of how powerful the call by nature was. Under normal circumstances, the child ought to have done this important life function in the privacy and comfort of his home, a toilet, probably supervised by an adult. Openly and rather oblivious of the many activities happening around him, he defecated publicly.
Ironically, the boy is not alone in this obviously embarrassing habit. So are thousands of other under-privileged children across the many slums dotting Delhi. Indeed, a resident told this reporter that the scenario described above is the norm among India’s slum dwellers, especially in slums like Holumbi Kalan 2.
A report by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF, reveals that nearly 60 per cent of those practising open defecation (or ‘short put’ as slum dwellers in Nigeria call it), worldwide, live in India, while a meagre 31 percent of households have access to sanitation. In numerical terms, it means about 626 million people still defecate in the open in the country. The situation is quite a challenge because in spite of 20 million toilets being constructed every year by the government, demand for their use is minimal. Experts blame the low patronage on lack of availability in some areas and a complex combination of behaviour, habit and attitude in others. This is because most people, especially those in the rural areas and slums, prefer to openly defecate rather than use a toilet. On the other hand, big toilets built by the government attract some fees. In Holumbi Kalan 2, for instance, one rupee is charged for urinating while stooling cost two rupees.
Anita Harish is a medical doctor with the Child Survival India, CSI, a non-profit initiative that provides free healthcare through mobile clinics in slums like Holumbi Khurd, Holumbi Kalan Phase 2 and some other states. She decries the situation, declaring that “due to bad sanitary condition in these communities we get a lot of diarrhoea in children, even in elderly. Many of the patients have skin problems as a result of poor hygiene. Seventy per cent of the patients we treated initially had ailments related to them. Today, although there is remarkable improvement, we still have many of such cases.” The mobile clinic attends to between 120 and 140 patients daily.
Dr. Beeps Bajaj, the chief executive officer of CSI, noted that lack of and misuse of toilets, limited access to portable water, coupled with poor hygiene are contributory factors for many sicknesses in the areas they cover. Dr. Bajaj said, “Previously, before we came there were lots of deaths from diarrhoea, cholera and malaria including air and vector borne diseases.” Management of these health challenges, she says, is also crucial for maternal care and child survival. According to her, many of the women they treat confess they opt for open defecation because if, for instance, they or their children or other members of their households need to stool more than once a day, that would mean additional expenses. Each visit to the rest room would be definitely accompanied by rupees from the sick pockets of many of the families. The case is even worse if any of them has diarrhoea, which inevitably compels them to doing their thing anywhere in the open.
As it is in India…
The Indian case is not too far from the ‘short put’ system in some slums and rural communities in Nigeria. Named after the popular age-long sports, short put, this type of open defecation is done in polythene bags or papers and flung into the nearest bush, waste dump or drainage. In some worst-case scenarios, it could become an unwanted parcel and sight at your gate or roadside.
A man who simply identifies himself as Kayode, a resident of Pedro Village, a slum in Makoko, under the Mainland Local Government Area of Lagos State (a community which has been declared illegal by the state government), says the ‘short put’ system is, for them, a necessary evil. Toilets, he says, are luxuries that many of his so-slum dwellers cannot afford. Even so, for a community with thousands of households, this important facility is virtually non-existent. “I don’t know of any house in this area wey get,” he laments in broken English. “Na inside water we dey shit, and water go carry am go. You fit shit for nylon throw way am for where dem dey throw dirty.” That notwithstanding, the distraught man says he and his fellow slum dwellers According to him, they would prefer to use toilet facilities but have no access to them.
Tunji Bello is the Lagos State Commissioner for Environment. He says the state has so far provided over 100 public toilets, noting, “We discovered that it’s not about building toilets but changing the bad habits of people defecating openly. We are already creating awareness on this and encouraging the private sectors to invest in public toilets as government can not do this alone.”
Although many Lagosians agree that the fifty to hundred naira charged for the use of public lavatories are tokens, some in very low-income areas disagree.
A report by UNICEF and World Health Organization, WHO, in 2012 shows that more than 1.1 billion people in the world practise open defecation. The largest numbers of these people are in India (626 million), followed by Indonesia (63 million), Pakistan (40 million), Ethiopia (38 million), and Nigeria (34 million).
Lack of sanitation and hygiene, according to medical experts in Nigeria, are the major causes of some contagious diseases including diarrhea, cholera and typhoid.
•Jennifer Igwe is an IRP India Fellow and Assistant Manager, News, with the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA