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Indian Group Promotes Development by Bringing Water, Toilets to 700 Million People

Hundreds of millions of homes across India lack running water and, therefore, toilets - which leads to disease and has social implications. Sulabh International, a private Indian group, is working to change the situation by building public toilets across the country.

At the Old Delhi Railway Station in the heart of India's capital, tens of thousands of people arrive everyday from all over the country, often to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families.

But first things first. Many are also often seeking a toilet.

Across the street from the train station is a public facility run by Sulabh International, a private Indian organization that promotes better sanitation for millions of urban and rural poor.

The two-story structure holds a total of 15 shower stalls and 36 toilets, for men and women. All are squat toilets, which require less water to operate.

Kashi Nath Jhe supervises the toilet facility.

He says the toilet facility has really cleaned up this part of the city, because before it opened, people used to defecate along the train tracks or on the road - or wherever they wanted. The area was filthy, he says, but the new toilets have really helped.

In a country with about one billion people, the sanitation implications are enormous. Sulabh International estimates that 120 million homes across the country still have no toilets, meaning 700 million people have to do without.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, says lack of toilets is a major cause of disease, which is compounded by the fact that many poor Indians do not wear shoes.

"So most of the diseases are caused by transmitting diseases from their feet and coming to their stomach - and they develop hookworm, roundworm, etc," he said. "And children in India, in rural areas, specifically, you will see that their hands and elbows are all thin, but their stomachs [are] big, only because the blood is sucked by those bacteria."

Sulabh International has built some 6,000 public toilet and bathing facilities in slums, public parks and at religious sites across the country. It also promotes the construction of basic toilets in private homes, which can be installed for as little as $10 each.

A lack of sanitation facilities is not just India's problem. The United Nations estimates 2.6 billion people globally have no access to water and, therefore, toilets.

One United Nation's Millennium Development project aims to halve that number by 2015. For India, that may be difficult to achieve.

"It's a huge challenge and the money required can run into billions of dollars," said Ghanasham Abhyankar, a sanitation engineer at the World Bank office in New Delhi. "That is trying to reach - not piped water to everybody - but the basic service level, as we call it, which is 40 liters per capita per day. And sanitation means that everybody at least has a private latrine."

New Delhi's diplomatic district, Chanakyapuri, is also home to a Sulabh International toilet facility, located across the street from an embassy.

The organization accepts donations of land from private owners or municipal governments to build the toilet facilities. The fee it charges to use the toilets - the equivalent of about four U.S. cents - covers maintenance costs.

Still, Sulabh International's Abha Bahadur says, the organization wants to get India's wealthy more involved in this project.

"What you are seeing here is a very posh area, a very nice area - though it has a big park at the back, so we have a lot of people coming here," he said. "The rich do have a problem if they see people defecating outside in the park, which is next to their house. Then they wake up and say, we must have a public toilet here, we don't like to see the sight. We are trying to encourage the public sector and the corporate sector to come forward."

The lack of toilets across India has social implications as well. It is affecting the education of girls. With no toilets in many schools, girls often quit rather than risk being seen relieving themselves outdoors. Others, also through modesty, choose not to relieve themselves, which causes infections and illness. And that is just one example of how lack of toilets hinders social and economic growth.

Experts say if India wants to become a fully developed nation, modern sanitation facilities are not just a convenience; they are a necessity.

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