What has the pandemic wrought on a field hidden from urban, middle-class India—a field that is, nonetheless, vital to India’s social and health indices? Sanitation is a fundamental aspect of social life, but it’s never much talked about—except in self-congratulatory government ads that tom-tom impressive statistics. The reality out there is far, far grimmer than what those ads would suggest, though—in both rural and urban areas. And the disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic have naturally extended to this infrastructural domain as well, creating unforeseen situations. For one, bad toilet conditions had always made for a gap between numbers and actual use. Open defecation was always rampant. And now, a variety of pandemic-related reasons—the fear of public toilets owing to them being hotbeds for coronavirus spread not the least of them—have made that practice even more rampant. This is a significant change in social behaviour with serious health implications that will only reveal themselves over time.
There’s another scourge from the past that very much lives in the present, and indeed, is thriving. More than 46,000 dry latrines have been enumerated as being in active use in semi-urban and rural India between the lockdowns of 2020-21—over and above this, hundreds of newer, dug-out pits have been found, showing that the trend is towards a further breakdown of sanitation infrastructure. The communities engaged in sanitation work are the worst-hit—the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act of 2013, and the strict ban have only made a modest dent on the scenario of everyday human degradation.