In 2016, as many as 96.5 per cent of rural elementary government schools had toilets, but more than one in four (27.79 per cent) were dysfunctional or locked, according to data collected for the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). Only about 68.7 per cent of schools had working toilet facilities for students.
In 2016, the ASER survey was conducted in 589 of 619 rural districts, and surveyors visited 17,473 schools. ASER has been collecting data on water and sanitation infrastructure in schools since 2009.
The proportion of schools with toilets increased 7.43 percentage points from 2010 to 2016. Functional toilets have increased 21.45 percentage points in the same period. But the rate of progress is now slowing, and government agencies do not collect data on usable toilets.
The National Sample Survey, the District Information System for Education (DISE), and the Census, which are the main sources of data on water and sanitation-related indicators, do not measure the usability of sanitation infrastructure.
The working and usage of sanitation facilities is ignored because of an overemphasis on the availability of this infrastructure. In states where the gap between availability and functionality is massive — a common occurrence in north-eastern and central states — focusing only on availability of toilets can be misleading.
For instance, if only availability is considered, 95.35 per cent of government elementary schools in rural Uttar Pradesh in 2016 were observed to have toilets. But if we look at the functionality of these toilets, we find that only 54.83 per cent were reported to have working toilets.
The percentage of schools with toilet facilities, in terms of availability has been reported in the high nineties for the past few years, which lines up with the vision of universal sanitation in schools.
But this encourages complacence about water and sanitation. When we look at data on working toilets, we realise that India is far from achieving near-perfect, universal sanitation in schools.
For instance, in Mizoram, slightly more than one in two schools (54.88 per cent) were found to have dysfunctional or locked toilets. A similar situation was observed in Manipur (47.19 per cent), Meghalaya (45.74 per cent), and Nagaland (45.24 per cent).
This gap between usability and availability is also observed in states that have better development indicators. In Kerala, 100 per cent of schools had a toilet, but 18 per cent were found to be unusable in 2016. Further, access to working toilets reduced over time.
In the context of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan-Gramin (Clean India Campaign-Rural) and Swachh Bharat Swachh Vidyalaya (Clean India Clean School) measuring usability of sanitation infrastructure becomes even more important. Broken toilets do not bring us any closer to realising the vision of Swachh Bharat (Clean India).
While a growth in the percentage of schools with working sanitation provisions has been reported over time, this improvement is slowing across most states, even as sanitation has been at the forefront of India's political discourse, and funding for sanitation policies has increased significantly in the past few years.
In Assam, for example, the proportion of schools with working toilets increased by 20 per cent between 2010 and 2012, six per cent between 2012 and 2014, and three per cent between 2014 and 2016. Ideally, the rate of improvement should be increasing over time, if not remain consistent, with an increase in funds. Functional toilets are overall low (33 per cent in 2010, 53 in 2012, 59 in 2014, and 62 in 2016) so the slowing rate of improvement cannot be attributed to the last remaining remote or difficult to access regions.
In Tamil Nadu (with 79.4 per cent of schools with usable toilets in 2016), the reported percentage of schools with working toilets increased by 23 per cent between 2010 and 2012, 12 per cent between 2012 and 2014, and decreased by 0.41 per cent between 2014 and 2016. In Uttar Pradesh, the proportion of schools with working toilets increased by six per cent between 2010 and 2012, by two per cent between 2012 and 2014, and remained stable between 2014 and 2016.
Gender disparity in working sanitation facilities
One of the reasons for high dropout rates and non-enrolment for girls in rural India could be the lack of toilets in schools, and thus it is worrying that improvement in working sanitation facilities for girls has also slowed down.
Secondly, data show that a lower proportion of schools have working toilets for girls than they have for boys, which means that girls do not enjoy the same level of access to working sanitation facilities as boys do. This has been calculated by comparing the proportion of schools that were found to have a working girl's toilet with the proportion of schools that had a working toilet.
In Maharashtra, 68 per cent of schools had a working toilet compared to 62.5 per cent of working toilets for girls. Similarly, in West Bengal, the difference between the recorded percentage of schools with toilets and the recorded percentage of schools with toilets for girls was 14.8 per cent in 2012, 24 in 2014, 14.7 in 2016.
It is only when we look beyond availability of toilets, and take into account the large gap between usability and availability of sanitation infrastructure, that we can make more nuanced arguments about indicators like rates of improvement in sanitation and gender parity, and make better policy to meet these challenges.