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After Mahatma GandhiJairam Ramesh is the only national leader to be genuinely concerned that 65 years after Independence, some 600 million Indians in the 21st century continue to use open skies as their latrines. While Lee Kuan Yew continues to exhort Singaporeans to have cleaner loos, our ministry of railways thinks depositing human excreta all along the country's length and breadth, including deep into the cities – at the railway stations – is a smart way to balance its budget.

Clearly, as a country, we don't realise that turning our butts to the world is the same as turning our back to human dignity and civilisation. And yet, our sensibilities are quick to take offence when, for once, a minister talks sense saying India needs more toilets than places of worship.

Our builders and contractors mostly think it perfectly fine to have their workforce use the vicinity of the construction sites as open lavatories. Wedding receptions, political rallies and public parades rarely provide for toilets for the millions who throng the events. Those living in high-rises in the metros rarely provide for toilets for the army of drivers, milkmen and newspaper boys who serve them. Our railway tracks are, of course, the most-used squatting spots.

In 1999, the government, unmindful that an ineffective loo policy by any other name must smell as bad, renamed the Comprehensive Rural Sanitation Programme – as if a name-change by itself can alter reality – to Total Sanitation Campaign, in order "to bring about an improvement in the general quality of life in the rural areas and to accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas to access to toilets to all by 2012 by motivating communities and Panchayati Raj Institutions in promoting sustainable sanitation facilities through awareness creation and health education".

In 1999, 2012 must have appeared too far away to worry about delivering the plan. Well, it is 2012 now, and according to 2011 census data, the campaign stinks more than the problem it was supposed to solve. Much money has gone down the non-existing flush, with little to show but heaps of night-soil around the country.

Moscow is dotted with tens of thousands of plastic portable garages for cars. Does India have a large-scale demand for plastic portable loos? The naysayers are in the same mould as those who proverbially assume no demand for shoes in sub-Saharan Africa, because no one wears shoes!

Perhaps India needs to explore portable toilets as one among a menu of solutions needed to address the sanitation challenge. True, creating a strong maintenance backup system in a country that is as short on habits of maintenance as on the habit of using toilets may be daunting. However, given Indian genius for jugaad, would it be inconceivable to hook up portable toilets to the sewerage system in every cooperative housing society, slum, marriage venue, building site, public ground and park, market, bazaar, rally route and what have you, which could help keep safeguard our environment and dignity? In fact, every municipality should be able to mandate such toilets as a compulsory urban sanitation requirement.

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