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It's good that union minister Jairam Ramesh has triggered an animated conversation around toilets, usually given short shrift in public discourse. But at the same time, pitching temples against toilets on a priority scale has confounded the debate. The issue at hand cannot be boiled down to a simple faith vs utility argument. Temples are places where a community congregates, and there is enough individual and community interest in building them. But the issue is what can be a viable business model for building toilets, which serve individuals or small groups.

It's here that the government needs to step in. Ramesh is ducking responsibility as a member of the Union Cabinet if he merely attributes the shortage of toilets to a supposed philanthropic deficit in Indian society overall, carefully bracketing out any government role in enhancing social welfare, in this case sanitation. Interestingly, the most active intervention in this field has come from Sulabh International, an NGO which launched a movement in the 1970s to liberate scavengers. Using low-cost and hygienic technology Sulabh has, over the last three decades, devised 26 toilet designs of varying budgets, with the help of local materials, factoring in existing water scarcity.

Its partnerships with governments, private companies, religious institutions and railways have generated viable non-profit business models, based on communication and motivation. The most successful of these include residential and pay-per-use toilets in highly populated areas, building toilets on land and funds provident by the clients. Since then more private players, like the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres, have entered the toilets market. But at the end of the day, the onus of ensuring universal access to toilets rests primarily on governments and not on NGOs or religious trusts.

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