Over 45 per cent of the population still defecates in the open in the South Asia, where no less than 750,000 children have died of diarrhoea over the last two years. On account of the poor sanitation situation, the region’s economy incurs losses equalling 5.8% of the combined national GDPs.

These less-than-encouraging numbers ran across the charter, speeches and reports at the Fourth South Asian Conference on Sanitation (SACOSAN), held recently at Colombo. This was a grim reminder of UN’s 2010 MDG Report, which noted that “…without a major push forward, many of the MDG targets are likely to be missed in most regions.”

The SACOSAN conferences involve Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This is a rather heterogeneous group - and India is widely pictured as the emerging world power; the stabilizer amid neighbours grappling with conflict, chronic poverty, political strife and infant democratic setups.

However, at this point, only 58% of India’s urban population has access to improved sanitation. In rural areas, the coverage stands at a mere 18%. This is considerably less than Bhutan (65% urban, 70% rural), Pakistan (92% urban, 35% rural) and Nepal (68% urban, 20% rural). In 2007, India, had announced that it planned to eradicate open-air defecation by 2012, well ahead of the MDG deadlines to do so. The Down to Earth magazine cleverly observes that to meet this commitment, it has to construct a toilet every second for a year!

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has been able to achieve 88% and 92% coverage in rural and urban areas respectively. The federal government claims that it is set to eradicate open defecation completely by 2020. And this is a country barely coming out of a bloody 25-year civil war.

These gaps in achievement are widely acknowledged, but there is a dearth of evidence-based explanations for them. Perhaps in cognizance of that, the conference statement recommends investments in monitoring and evaluation systems (while steering clear of specific targets/ commitments).

Besides wondering whether the conference recommendations will initiate any real action, at least two questions arise:

  • What has worked in Sri Lanka, and what is not working in India (and what is happening in between)?
  • India will probably not make it to the sanitation MDGs. And this has grave consequences for meeting global targets. Is it time to be realistic, and start thinking beyond 2015? 

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