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A Small-Town Contest in India Highlights the Need for Infrastructure Investment
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Recently, a small town named Barielly in India hosted a beauty pageant—with a twist. The contest was for the best toilet, and about 1,800 villages took part.

Satyendra Kumar, a Chief Development Officer in the region, said, “During visits to villages, we often found toilets were in bad shape. We decided to organize a toilet contest to motivate villagers to improve [the] quality of toilets.” When the contest was announced, the villagers went all out to give their toilets a makeover. They hung new doors and attached designer tiles, and on the day of the pageant the toilets were adorned in bright colors and decorated with balloons and flowers.

The winners were proud, and the excitement and celebrations of the villagers continued well after the event. In India, such initiatives have become more common, and bureaucrats often travel to remote villages that have achieved “open defecation free” (ODF) status to congratulate the villagers. To encourage their continued success, the Government of India provides assistance to help sustain such initiatives.More than 2.6 billion people on the planet still live without access to necessary sewage and sanitation facilities. India is no doubt the biggest offender, with more than 700 million people lacking access to basic sanitation facilities. It’s succeeded by China with more than 600 million, followed by Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia.

This lack of sanitation facilities deprives people of basic human rights and dignity—and it’s an even larger problem for women and girls. On top of that, a lack of proper sanitation and sewage maintenance can lead to the contamination of drinking water. Globally, at least two billion people use drinking water contaminated with feces, which can transmit illnesses and disease, including diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrheal deaths each year, of which children make up the largest proportion of victims.

The chief cause of poor infrastructure in these regions, no doubt, is underdevelopment and poverty. In poor countries with low per capita income, resources are limited, and infrastructure is often in shambles. Drainage and sewage systems are rudimentary, and cities and villages lack any urban planning or basic infrastructure. Billions of people in the world live in slum-like conditions with few resources and without the opportunity to improve their situation.

The long-term solution lies in overall macroeconomic development, in addition to a stable and progressive political environment in each respective country. The problem has become severe in underdeveloped countries, which will require guidance on how to improve their systems of infrastructure into the future. The political environment in a developing country is often unstable—its leaders are often unsure of the way forward, and the nation tends to develop in a rather haphazard manner. Instead, leaders need to focus on organized and planned development, borrowing from the wealth of knowledge about urban planning in developed countries. All of that will ultimately require long-term government-driven urban planning and infrastructure development to establish basic drainage, sewage, and water provision systems.

In the short-term, multiple private initiatives have had good results. Several communities have engaged in self-improvement programs to better their living conditions with the encouragement of progressive governments and bureaucrats. On top of that, the improvement of sanitation and drinking water provision has been incorporated into the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, with support from the World Health Organization and the World Bank. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has even invented a toilet design that can be used without the typical drainage infrastructure, investing billions to create innovative solutions to such problems.  

With sustained global and local initiatives and increased funding, water and sanitation facilities have improved for millions of people around the world in recent years. These are important goals for developing countries, and while piecemeal solutions have been applied, a more concerted approach is necessary. Investment in infrastructure is essential to improve the basic livelihood of billions of people. Though developing nations are no doubt constrained by limited resources, the problem is also caused by a lack of focus. Infrastructure investment needs to be targeted beyond just industrial development, ensuring that the population’s basic need for water and sanitation are met.

Clean, sanitary environments, access to safe drinking water, and dignified sanitation systems are fundamental human rights—but are deprived to about 30–40 percent of the world population. Better planning and investment in infrastructure are core parts of the solution. With a stronger strategic approach, the world can provide access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation for everyone.

Anuradha Kataria is an author of a book and editorials on International Affairs. She is an Indian residing in Gurgaon, India. She graduated from Delhi University with Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Botany, Education and Business Administration. She may be contacted on anukat3@gmail.com.  

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