This is a special report from South Asia WASH Media Forum, our sister network of Journalists in South Asia who report on WASH issues.

Amar Guriro
November 12, 2011

KARACHI – For the people of South Asia, sanitation means “dignity” and “cleanliness”, said a report released on by WaterAid together with the Freshwater Action Network South Asia (FANSA) and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC).

The report is titled “South Asian people’s perspective on sanitation”. The report – put together from interviews conducted in South Asian countries, focus group discussions held with underprivileged communities and social groups across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – aims to bring the people behind the crude statistics into the sanitation debate.

Makeshift houses in Dharavi, the real Mumbai slum from 'Slumdog Millionaire', often described as the largest slum in Asia.

Talking about the report, WaterAid’s Mustafa Talpur said sanitation has never been on the agenda of SAARC in 16 summits over the span of 25 years. He said, “The Millennium Development Goal target for sanitation to be achieved by 2015 rests with countries in South Asia.

If South Asia makes progress on sanitation, then the world will make progress.” In South Asia, promising economic growth is countered with poor human development, poverty and disease, with almost half the region’s population without improved sanitation and over 700 million people forced to defecate in the open.

FANSA’s Ramisetty Muraili said, “The report clearly indicates that people want to live a life of dignity and health, but are frustrated by lack of effective support and failure of poorly planned and implemented projects, whereas some communities are reluctant to adopt safe hygiene practices because of sociological and cultural barriers and extreme poverty.”

Moreover, the collective voice of the people also associates sanitation with notions of happiness, pride, safety, health and education. The study appeals to policymakers to revamp institutional mechanisms that invite community participation in sanitation projects.

Above all, the study calls for greater accountability and transparency measures and a focus on human-centred development, targeting the below-poverty communities in India and the hardcore-poor of Bangladesh and Nepal.

WSSCC’s Archana Patkar said, “SAARC needs to recognise the sanitation crisis in the region and challenge the inequity in the provision and distribution of resources. Governments need to engage proactively in matters related to water, sanitation and hygiene.” She added, “The regional mechanisms for implementation, coordination, research and knowledge-sharing through the existing SAARC Secretariat is needed to strengthen the process of the South Asian Conference on Sanitation.”

When asked how sanitation is essential for life, Pakistan’s Mohammad Rafiq – an illiterate daily-wage worker from the peri-urban Choa Ganj Ali Shah, Chakwal district, Punjab – said, “Sanitation is an important part of our religion too. Cleanliness helps a person get a better education and higher position in society. Washing one’s hands with soap after defecation is very important for maintaining hygiene. Food hygiene prevents diseases and keeps children healthy.” Punitha from Chinnaviai – an urban panchayat in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu, India – said, “Sanitation is the basis for happiness and satisfaction. It urges me to get up early and my first thought of the day is to keep my home and surroundings clean. As the day starts with cleaning, the whole day then becomes very active and happy.”

Pakistan’s Sughran Bibi – a housewife from Jungle Barali, Vehari district, Punjab – said, “In the absence of sanitation facilities, people feel degraded, especially when guests arrive. Many people have migrated from this area just because of poor sanitation.”

A kid walks throgh Dharavi slum in Mumbai India.

Veerkala from Kota Dewara, Uttar Pradesh, India, said, “Everyone in the village goes to the nearby fields for defecation. It is dirty, troublesome, time-consuming and dangerous, especially for women and physically-challenged people. It is very common for pigs to attack us from behind when we are squatting in the field. We are forced to take someone along when going out to the fields.”

Ram Avtar – a prominent member of the community from Bhora village, Jalaun district, Uttar Pradesh, India – said, “We waste so much time in going to the doctor and then waste so much money on medicines. By just paying a little bit attention to sanitation, we can save all that time and money and thereby enhance our economic condition.”

HA Chandana from Uva province, Sri Lanka, said, “Considering the United Nations’ standards, it is the duty of the Sri Lankan government to ensure access to water and sanitation.” Maya Chaudhari – a social activist from Chhotipaliya, Kailali district, Nepal – said, “When people really want it, change is definitely possible. There have been incredible changes in my village. Sanitary conditions have improved in a short period of time and the prestige of the villagers has skyrocketed among the neighbouring settlements. Chhotipaliya is treated as a model for people from other parts of the district.”

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