Mitu Kumari, in charge of a government school in Patahin, a village on the outskirts of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, has a measured enthusiasm for PM Narendra Modi's announcement that toilets for girls will be built in schools that still don't have this basic facility . For her 146 students and three women teachers, absence of toilets is an intolerable problem.
Modi has raised an important issue that touches millions of students, especially girls, and their teachers too.Corporate bodies have responded to Modi's appeal for funds. It's one of those rare stories in India where everything is falling into place and, so, people are happy .
But once you get down to the nuts and bolts, several things are worryingly unclear.The plan targets only 11 lakh government-run elementary schools (class 1 to 8) leaving out 3.2 lakh private schools. It omits secondary and higher schools. Also, it is silent on two of the biggest reasons why toilets fail in rural schools: lack of water and cleaning.
Nearly 1.9 lakh schools don't have girls' toilets or these toilets are “dysfunctional“, according to a DISE report of 2013-14. That's 17% of all schools. Then, there are about 1.7 lakh schools that have no boys' toilets or toilets are unusable. That's 15% of schools. There is a widespread feeling that the DISE data on which the plan relies does not accurately reflect the ground reality. The ASER 2013 report based on a survey of nearly 14,000 rural primary schools in about 550 districts revealed that 47% of schools did not have usable girls' toilets. The surveyors checked toilets to see whether they were open to use and whether water was available. Another survey by the NGO CRY in 747 schools of 71 districts had an even worse result. They found that only 18% of schools had separate toilets for girls and in 34% of schools toilets were in “bad condition or unusable“.
Among secondary and higher schools (class 9 to 12) of the total 2.37 lakh schools covered by DISE, nearly 12,000 girls' schools and 23,000 boys' schools have no toilets. Data on dysfunctional toilets has not been released although it was collected. Modi's programme does not include this segment at all, although the need for privacy is heightened among senior girls.
Micro-studies have shown that after puberty, girls do not like to use public spaces near school because of privacy issues, says Vimala Ramachandran, professor at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA).
“Also, toilets are essential for girls having menstrual periods. Lack of toilets is also a big issue with women teachers. Working long hours without toilet facilities can be trying,“ she explains.
Building toilets alone is not going to be sufficient -without water and daily maintenance they will be useless. In most rural primary schools there is a hand pump in the middle of the premises and water has to be carried to toilets at the periphery . Although there is no data on water for toilets, the stipulated handwash facility near the toilet was not available in 55% of elementary schools and 42% of secondary or higher schools, as per DISE.
Since there is no budget for appointing a cleaner, maintenance becomes a huge problem, ultimately leading to the toilet being locked up.