Everyday Mala Kumar wakes up before dawn to attend nature's call in a nearby paddy field. The 25-year-old, who is a resident of Bangaon village situated in the Saharsa district of Bihar has no access to toilets. In order to avoid ignominy of defecating in the open, all Mala can do is to compromise on her daily dose of sleep and wake up while it is still dark.
Mala's daily routine of getting up early and visiting the paddy field while it is still dark is fraught with risks.
Narrating her plight, soft-spoken Mala says that she has no other choice.
"Paddy fields are full of snakes and rats and I run the risk of being bitten by them. But, what do I do? I have no access to toilets," rued Mala.
Staying miles apart, Savitri Devi, 30, a resident of Mumbai slum shares similar predicament with Mala. Savitri's ordeal ranges from getting infected with diseases or being sexual abused by miscreants as everyday she defecates in the railway tracks of the city.
India's sanitation crisis is an issue that is hardly being discussed in public forums.
Is defecating in public spaces an Indian culture?
Be it in villages or urban areas of the country, people squatting and urinating openly in public spaces is a common sight. As Indians, we are hardly bothered about such pitiful conditions of our fellow country men who are forced to defecate in public. But visitors from across the world are astonished by such inhuman conditions.
Many tourists feel that it is an Indian culture to use public space as toilets. Is it true? Or is it our negligence where we don't even give due importance to make toilets available to all? Ladies squatting by the railway tracks (who cover their faces with the fall of their saris when a train rolls by) is something that shames India everyday.
Indians have mobiles phones, but no toilets. Funny but true. Figures state that nearly half of India defecates in the open but at the same time more than 63 per cent have access to either a landline or a mobile phone. The startling figures were part of Household Amenities Census 2011, released earlier this year.
The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals Report 2012 points that 626 million people in the country - the highest in the world - don't have a closed toilet and consequently practice open defecation.
Is sanitation not a priority for the government?
A proposal to the Planning Commission to make Right to Toilet an integral part of the 12th plan got junked. Experts now say sanitation is the big failure when it comes to India's target of achieving its millennium development goals.
Union Minister for Rural Development and Sanitation Jairam Ramesh started a campaign named Nirmal Bharat Yatra which focuses on making the country free from open defecation on Wednesday, Oct 3.
The yatra which begin from Wardha District of Maharashtra on Wednesday will go through Indore, Kota, Gwalior and Gorakhpur and end up in Bettiah district of Bihar on Nov 17, covering about 2000 km of distance. The Yatra is to sensitise people on sanitation issues as open defecation is a blot on our society.
Bollywood actress Vidya Balan is the brand ambassador of the campaign.
The campaign is being promoted by several NGOs and private companies. The campaign will spend over Rs 12 crore and is going to target over nine crore people to spread awareness about sanitation.
Moreover, India provides subsidies to construct toilets and runs sanitation and hygiene campaigns. Spending on sanitation was increased nearly three-fold in 2005. In 2003, the government kicked off a scheme to award village councils which are able to eliminate open defecation. Kerala has been the best performer with 87% of its village councils picking up the award. Only 2% of councils in dirt-poor Bihar won in a dismal commentary on the state of its sanitation.
"We are the world's capital for open defecations. 60 per cent of all open defecations in the world are in India. This is a matter of great shame," Ramesh said.
Gender bias: Women and Sanitation
It is the female population of the country which runs the highest risk of being infected by various diseases and sexual assaults as they defecate in the open. Activists say that a large number of women, mostly in villages and urban slums run the risk of being sexually harassed by miscreants as they use public space to defecate and bathe.
Recently, Jim Yardley wrote in The New York Times that unlike men, many women in Mumbai often have to pay to urinate -- an injustice that has started a "Right to Pee" campaign.
Glamour quotient to fight the "dirty" image
Bollywood actor Vidya Balan, who is known for her power packed performance in film like Dirty Picture, has been nominated as the brand ambassador of government's sanitation campaign. The government is hoping that a popular face like Vidya Balan can change people's attitude towards sanitation and cleanliness.
Poverty and sanitation
Almost 90 per cent of people without access to toilets are poor people. In such a scenario, poor people are most likely to become prone to various diseases like dysentery and diarrhoea. Experts say poor sanitation facility is also one of the main causes of malnutrition among Indian children as they are vulnerable to water borne diseases.
Health and Sanitation
This practice of open defecation is the riskiest sanitation practice of all, according to World Health Organisation and UNICEF. According to the WHO, improved sanitation can produce up to $9 for every $1 invested by increasing productivity, reducing health care costs and preventing illness, disability and early death.
Bill Gates helping hands
Indian government might be blind to the entire issue of sanitation crisis in the country. But American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates has taken note of the problem. He wants to provide every Indian with a toilet which is cost effective. He is trying to reinvent a toilet that has an operational cost of $0.05 per user, per day, that does not rely on water to flush waste and does not discharge pollutants.
Gates recently challenged 22 universities to submit proposals for how to invent a waterless and hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world and doesn't have to be connected to a sewer. Eight universities were awarded grants to "reinvent the toilet".
DRDO to gift bio-digestor toilets
Ramesh has teamed up with India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to set up "bio-digestor toilets" in 1,000 villages across the country. The aim is to make 1,000 panchayats open-defecation free by installing the bio-toilets, originally developed by DRDO for soldiers deployed in high-altitude areas, over the next few years.
Sikkim, the trend-setter
Sikkim is the only state in India which has achieved the ODF (Open Defecation Free) status. States like Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Maharashtra are on the way to achieve the sanitation goals in coming one to two years.