11/21/2014, 00.00
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India, an open pit latrine that continues to kill thousands of children each year

In a world of some seven billion people, about 60 per cent of its residents without toilets live in India. Poor sanitation and hygiene as well as water pollution cause acute, often fatal diarrhoea and cholera. The government's Clean India campaign promises to solve the emergency, but ordinary Indians remains sceptical.

New Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - In 2014, India remains the country with the highest rate of infant mortality from diseases related to the lack of sanitation. The South Asia nation accounts in fact for about 60 per cent of the planet's residents without public or private toilets, highest in the world.

Human and animal excrements end up in the fields, polluting ground water, crops and waterways, and causing diarrhoea and cholera, this according to a new report from the international development organisation WaterAid on World Toilet Day.

The United Nations, which designated 19 November as World Toilet Day to highlight sanitation as a developmental priority, says about 35 per cent - 2.5 billion of the planet's 7 billion people - live without basic sanitation facilities.

The young are bearing the brunt of this health and development crisis, which has claimed the lives of at least 10 million children under the age of five since 2000 because they have no access to a basic toilet

In India, the lack of sanitation costs 600,000 lives each year from diarrhoea. An estimated 1.1 million litres of excrement enters the Ganges River every minute.

Central to the problem is that for behavioural and other reasons, many in India with latrines do not use them, said Payal Hathi, associate director of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics.

A recent study of 22,000 people in five Indian states found that in 56 per cent of the households surveyed, every member of the family was defecating in the open. Only 26 per cent of the households used latrines. In 40 per cent of the homes with an open latrine, at least one person does not use it.

In order to improve sanitary conditions of the population, the central government launched a Clean India campaign last October, with promises to build toilets in every school and home within five years.

However, the institute expects more than half of the households to continue to defecate in the open even with the toilet-building programme because of cultural factors.

"Our survey shows deep-seated beliefs in the ideas about pollution and impurity," Hathi said. Many think that "having a toilet at home pollutes their home. Also, cleaning toilets and the pit dug for faeces has been connected to certain castes", namely Dalits (also known as untouchables).

This can explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaign has not yet generated a lot of traction among ordinary Indians, many of whom remain sceptical about its effectiveness.

Jayshree Lakhan, 54, is a Safai Karamchari, a street cleaner who lives in Panchsheel Nagar, one of the 25 colonies in Mumbai inhabited by garbage collectors like her. About 150 families have access to toilets but these are not connected to flushing water.

"For 62 years now, this and other BMC-owned quarters for safai karamcharis across Mumbai have had no water supply," the Indian Express writes.

"I keep hearing everywhere about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and see photographs of celebrities with brooms," Jayshree said.

"I want Prime Minister Narendra Modi to confirm whether our colony comes inside India's borders. If you walk into our toilets, you will see that it doesn't."

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