India’s Budget: The Toilet Test

India Nutrition Sanitation Infographic

By John Richardson

IT was fantastic news to hear that Narendra Modi, in his first budget as Prime Minister, has repeated his pledge of ensuring that every Indian has access to a toilet by 2019.

But will he follow through on this pledge? We sincerely hope so as tackling this one big issue should define the success or failure of his government far more than whether he manages to improve India’s often woeful roads, ports and power supply. There is little point in improving your infrastructure if much of your human potential continues to go to waste because of bad health. Success in this area will be crucial. He must also wage a successful war on poverty.

This New York Time story makes the case very strongly for a heavy focus not only on giving every Indian an access to a toilet, but also on  overcoming cultural barriers that discourage people from using toilets when they have been installed.

As the NYT article argues:

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting afflicts 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.

This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to lessen malnutrition.

Half of India’s population, or at least 620 million people, defecates outdoors. And while this share has declined slightly in the past decade, an analysis of census data shows that rapid population growth has meant that most Indians are being exposed to more human waste than ever before.

 “The difference in average height between Indian and African children can be explained entirely by differing concentrations of open defecation,” said Dean Spears, an economist at the Delhi School of Economics. “There are far more people defecating outside in India more closely to one another’s children and homes than there are in Africa or anywhere else in the world.”

Not only does stunting contribute to the deaths of a million children under the age of 5 each year, but those who survive suffer cognitive deficits and are poorer and sicker than children not affected by stunting. They also may face increased risks for adult illnesses like diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

So forget how many good roads, ports and power plants etc. are built in during Modi’s years in office, how many industries are opened-up to foreign competition and how well the stock market fares.

What we instead need is a toilet index, to measure both the progress of installing toilets and to what extent they are being used.

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