INDIA’S slow progress in attaining parity with other nations on major health indicators has been stymied further by the grave situation in the water and sanitation sectors. After all, 21 per cent of communicable diseases in India are related to the lack of clean water and hygienic sanitation facilities. Moreover, over 37 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases, largely due to the consumption of contaminated drinking water.
Access to safe drinking water is one of the most daunting challenges facing India in the next few decades. Experts have calculated that by 2020, i.e. only ten years from now, India will officially become a water-stressed country. Already, 160 million Indians are deprived of clean water for drinking. Having 17 per cent of the world’s population (and growing) and only 5 per cent of its fresh water supplies, India’s water woes are set to overwhelm us if action is not taken immediately.
One would assume that because of the limited fresh water supplies available with India, they are treated as a national treasure that are preserved and protected against misuse. But the state of India’s rivers and lakes belie this assumption. Indians of all regions, religions, castes, and educational backgrounds have contributed in the massive pollution of fresh water sources, including of rivers we consider holy. A case in point is Varanasi, described as the ‘cultural capital of India’, where millions of Indians arrive to take a dip in the holy Ganga.
Studies of the Ganga here have found that there are 60,000 faecal bacteria per 100 millilitre of water. This is 120 times more than the levels considered safe for bathing.
Much of this faecal bacteria can be sourced to the rampant practice in India of open defecation. In a country where 200 million households lack a toilet, open defecation is practised by nearly 650 million Indians. In comparison, only 37 million Chinese are forced to defecate in the open.
With total sanitation coverage still below 50 per cent, and with only 10 per cent of our cities having a sewage system, it would seem that a majority of Indians will continue to be condemned to face the consequences of unhygienic sanitary conditions. This includes the yearly loss of 1.5 million children who die due to diarrhoea, a disease that is directly linked to inadequate sanitation; and a hit to the economy of an estimated Rs 12,000 million due to diseases caused by lack of sanitation and hygiene.
Education: A long way to go
On the face of it, education is one sector where India ought to be shining the brightest. After all, the economic strength of the country today is widely acknowledged to be a result of a vibrant educated population that is driving innovations in the fields of services and technology. From a measly 12 per cent at the end of British rule, India’s literacy rate has soared to 66 per cent. More children in rural India are attending primary schools due to proactive government programmes such as Sarva Siksha Abhyaan and the Midday Meal schemes run by state governments.
However, these achievements cannot mask the fact that 100,000 Indian villages still do not have a basic primary school. Or that only 40 per cent of Indian girls get to finish primary school. More worrisome, as numerous experts have pointed out, is the deteriorating quality of education imparted to India’s children, especially in rural areas. More than half of regular primary school teachers have not completed higher secondary education. Rampant teacher absenteeism, as high as 44 per cent in some states, compounds the problem, leaving most children poorly educated despite attending school regularly.
While the situation in higher education is considerably better, universities and colleges in India are still struggling with basic issues of lack of funds and a shortage of adequate teaching staff. Public expenditure on higher education is a woeful 0.4 per cent of GNP, and 25 per cent of teaching positions in Indian colleges lie vacant.
India is widely regarded as a knowledge superpower, yet from a quick glance at its education sector, it seems this epithet is more a result of our rich heritage in promoting knowledge. If the education sector is allowed to languish further by apathy and neglect, our knowledge edge may soon be blunted beyond repair.
(To be continued)
(The writer is national organising secretary of Vijnana Bharati.)