The global charity founded on the fortune of software billionaire Bill Gates is joining hands with the Indian government to improve sanitation in rural areas where nearly 60% of people have no access to basic toilets.
Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh met Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corp and chairman of the powerful and deeply resourceful Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on Wednesday, in what the two sides said was an effort to cooperate on several initiatives for rural India.
The most important is a potential partnership in the government's new Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, a revamped sanitation campaign that aims to end open defecation in 10 years and has its ambassador, Bollywood actress Vidya Balan. The Gates Foundation is backing an initiative called 'Reinventing the Toilet', which started in Rwanda last year, involves 22 universities around the world and works on developing low-cost sanitation solutions for the developing world.
Ramesh urged Gates that the initiative should have a more India-centric approach as nearly 58% of all open defecations happen here. The efforts could also be tailored to benefit Indian Railways, which ferries 11 million passengers daily, without hygenic sanitation.
Sanitation is a daunting problem in India, particularly so in rural areas where, according to the 2011 census, seven out of 10 people lack access to toilets. For urban India, the figure is two out of 10.
"The toilet has saved more lives than any other healthcare device," said Frank Rijsberman, the Gates Foundation's director of water, sanitation and hygiene.
The World Health Organization considers open defecation "the riskiest sanitation practice of all". The high level of open defecation and a tenth of the population using toilets without piped water presents a big hurdle to the government's growth aspirations. Improper sanitation results in loss of life and loss of productivity on account of ill health. Proper toilets can stem some of the common causes of ill health, which in turn, is a major cause of rural indebtedness.
The government's expenditure over the last nearly 13 years hasn't yielded desired results.