Size does matter

Early childhood is the most critical period of human life. This is the phase that lays the foundation for an individual's mental, social and physical development. Early childhood is also the time when malnutrition, communicable diseases and poor health could threaten life itself, or have profound and long-term adverse effects on the development of the child.

It is estimated that nearly a third of the 60 million Indian children below poverty line live in urban centres. These children are probably the most neglected and the worst affected, in terms of water, sanitation and basic services affecting health. In crowded low-income urban settlements, children are at considerable health risks due to the lack of toilets, water supply, sanitation and sewerage.

The situation is worse still in the case of balwadis (child care centres for children below five years). There are nearly 1,200 such centres in Chennai, of which about 900 fall in Chennai Corporation's primary schools, and the rest in various government structures. Children from the slums around these centres spend a sizeable part of their day here. For lack of alternatives, these centres also double up as toilets for people who live in the slums around these centres. Added to this is the fact that there is little or no maintenance of these toilets.

The children themselves avoid using these toilets. For starters, the larger size of the toilets is a huge deterrent. Most children are scared they will either fall in or get trapped in the closet. Lack of water supply, unhygienic environment and improper sewerage systems ensure that the toilets are often clogged. "These children (in the balwadis) are in a doubly pitiable condition. They lack not only appropriate sanitary arrangements, but are also obliged to occupy a highly unsanitary and health-endangering environment,' feels Mina Swami-nathan, who is actively campaigning to establish the need for child-friendlytoilets.

In 1992, Swaminathan started a network called Forum for Creche and Childcare Services (forces) in Chennai, an organisation devoted to the cause of children below five years of age, especially the poor.

S Velayutham, present convenor of the Tamil Nadu chapter of forces, says that he and some colleagues had conducted a study of 1,050 childcare centres in Tamil Nadu. The statistics they came up with are telling. Of the centres studied, only 13 per cent have toilets. The ones that do have toilets make no attempt to maintain them. They also found that a number of these centres do not have adequate electricity and water supplies.

The forces' active campaign with the state government has yielded positive results. Shantha Sheela Nair, secretary, municipal administration and water supply, Government of Tamil Nadu, has assured them that all childcare centres in Chennai city will beprovided with proper water supply and sewerage connections.

In addition, Chennai Corporation has been entrusted with the job of constructing child friendly toilets. They will start with twenty centres in Satyavani Nagar, Purasawalkam, Chennai, as a pilot project. These toilets will be maintained with the active involvement of the community (teachers of the centres and parents of the children attending the centres). To avoid the practice of adults using the toilets in these balwadis, individual toilets in slum dwellings will be promoted.

"If the system succeeds, it willprotect the child from the risks of open defecation, and teach him or herbasic hygiene habits. When these children go back home, they will insist on toilets as well. This leads to habit formation for future generations,' says Swaminathan. She said, and she could not have been more bang on, "Children also have the right to defecate in peace and convenience!'