Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech impressed many, but for some, his statement that most schools in India do not have toilets served as a painful reminder of harsh realities. “I felt as if the prime minister was talking about me,” says Sunita*, 13, who lives in Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh. “No one understands what girls here have to undergo in these schools without toilets.” Sunita was referring to what girls across her state face every day, but her own story is enough to expose a critical lacuna in our schooling system.
Until a year ago, Sunita studied in Class VII in a government school. The school does not have toilets for girls.
They have to go to some ruins nearby to relieve themselves. Girls avoid going there alone and usually take a friend along. Unfortunately, one day Sunita had to go there alone. When she was relieving herself, some boys turned up and grabbed her. They had probably been keeping an eye on the movement of girls. Sunita was lucky as some other girls arrived right then and raised an alarm. The boys fled and Sunita was saved.
However, she never went back to school. Her parents are not ready to send their daughter to such a school. Even Sunita no longer wants to attend school even though she regrets having to live away from the world of books. Listening to Modi’s speech brought back those painful memories to her mind.
Sunita’s is not an isolated case. In Chhattisgarh, there are numerous instances of girls having to drop out of school for similar reasons. Although it is not possible to pinpoint the exact number of such cases, it is clear that children in the state face a different set of challenges as the schools lack toilets.
What renders it even more shocking is the fact that Chhattisgarh is no longer considered a backward state and is seen as the No. 1 state in the country in terms of rice production. The state is also acclaimed for its advanced, computerised public distribution system and the progress it has made in the sphere of information technology. The economic wellbeing of the state is underlined by the rise in its per capita income year after year. The annual per capita income of Chhattisgarh rose from Rs 44,505 in 2011-12 to Rs 50,691 in 2012-13 and Rs 56,990 in 2013-14.
Yet, Chhattisgarh is one of those states where thousands of schools either do not have toilets or where the toilets are dysfunctional. Of its 47,526 schools, more than 17,000 — including 8,164 girls’ schools — do not have toilets. In Gariaband, one of the nine districts formed in 2012, of 1,561 schools, 604 girls’ and 206 boys’ schools do not have toilets.
Like Sunita, 17-year-old Radha* had to leave school for a similar reason. Radha lives in Moudhapara, a congested colony in state capital Raipur. She dropped out after Class III. It’s not as if she did not want to study further or her family forced her to quit schooling. Her reason was that there was no toilet facility in her school. If she felt the need to relieve herself during school hours, she had to return home, which was 2 kms away. She felt the only solution for this problem was to leave school. Her parents also thought so. Today, she does odd jobs in an office, mostly serving tea. When she looks around and sees other educated girls, she regrets having had to quit school.
For children from minority communities, the situation is even more challenging. Radha’s friend Fauzia*, 15, has a similar story. Fauzia’s father Sheikh Usman is a fruit vendor. Usman wanted to educate his only daughter to gain respect in his community and admitted her in a government primary school. But Fauzia had to drop out after Class V, and for the same reason as Sunita and Radha. Today, she works in a snacks processing unit.
Like Radha and Fauzia, there are thousands of girls in Raipur who either quit school or continue facing problems because of the lack of toilets. Even after 67 years of Independence, neither the state nor the Centre has taken the matter seriously.
According to a recent survey carried out by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, 78 schools in Raipur do not have toilets for girls and 220 schools do not have toilets for boys. In the rest of the 1,000 schools in the capital city, 583 toilets for girls and 516 toilets for boys are in a deplorable condition. Using these toilets can be a health hazard.
The survey also reveals that due to lack of proper maintenance, the existing toilets for girls in schools across the state have been rendered dysfunctional. These include 583 toilets in Raipur, 156 in Kanker, 150 in Dhamtari, 213 in Bemetara, 149 in Mungeli, 135 in Baloda Bazar, 503 in Surajpur, 359 in Bastar, 323 in Sarguja, 235 in Gariaband, 238 in Korba, 189 in Koriya and 166 in Jashpur.
The situation is worse in tribal areas, where new toilets were constructed in schools but were soon rendered useless due to lack of maintenance. These include 738 schools in Bastar, 683 in Surajpur, 560 in Sarguja, 394 in Gariaband, 369 in Jashpur, 358 in Koriya and 323 in Kanker.
A few weeks ago, Chhattisgarh Education Minister Kedar Kashyap expressed worry over the lack of toilets in schools. He called a meeting of top officials in his New Raipur office and ordered for toilets to be built in all schools at the earliest. “It is true that several girls dropped out of schools for this reason,” Kashyap told TEHELKA. “We plan to come up with a scheme for such girls so that they can complete their education.”
State secretary for education Subrata Sahu says that “the state has started work on building a proper system of sanitation in schools. Soon, all schools will have better toilet facilities”.
The education minister, who is now expressing sorrow over girls dropping out of schools, could well have prevented it. In Chhattisgarh, the ministry of education is allocated the third highest annual budget among all ministries. The education budget was Rs 813.58 crore for 2001-02, the first financial year after the formation of the state, and has increased to Rs 6,298 crore for 2013-14. Toilets are not on the list of highlighted points in the budget, even though Rs 175 crore has been set aside for provision of basic amenities in schools, which includes laboratory equipment and furniture. Ideally, toilets should also be considered a basic need but the state government seems to have had little interest in building them.
NGOs have been raising their voice on the issue of the lack of toilets in schools and how it adversely affects girls’ education. “Lack of basic amenities in schools is also giving rise to diseases in students. We have seen several such cases and it is alarming,” says Vijendra Ajnabi, associated with Oxfam India, Chhattisgarh.
It’s been nearly 14 years since Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Now, as the state government seems to have finally woken up to the problem of lack of toilets in schools, it remains to be seen how soon its declared intentions are transformed into reality. Until then, girls like Sunita, Radha and Fauzia will continue to suffer.
*names changed to protect identities
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman