Monday, June 18, 2018
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‘Absurd paradox’

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen posed a simple question in his new book, “An Uncertain Glory.” Where do more than 600 million Indians defecate? asked this Cambridge and Harvard professor. “Half of all Indians have no toilet.” That triggered an international uproar.

Towering condos are redrawing India’s skyline. But many of them lack toilets. Servants relieve themselves in byways. “It’s a combination of class, caste, gender discrimination—and shocking,” Sen writes with coauthor Jean Drèze.

Hold that smirk. We also flub the smell test from lack of “loos”: Here, 26 million can’t get to a latrine, reports the World Health Organization and UN Children’s Fund. This survey is conducted every two years.


Of these 26 million, 7.4 million “openly defecate,” notes Unicef Water, Sanitation and Hygiene specialist Michael Emerson Gnilo. They’re clustered among the 20 percent poorest: in Masbate, Northern Samar, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

A “wrap and throw” practice disposed of excreta in parts of north Cebu, the late Fr. Wilhelm Flieger, SVD, found. “Conditions in Bantayan and Camotes were almost disastrous.” This University of San Carlos demographer authored the path-breaking study “Cebu.” However, the latest edition of “Cebu” documents improvements.

Education Secretary Armin Luistro seeks an ideal ratio of one toilet for every 50 students. He has whittled down the backlog and estimates that, this year, 90,000 toilets have to be built. There are funds for them in the P55.9-billion budget of the Department of Education.

“The Need for Impatience” is the title of the last chapter in Sen’s book. It zeroes in on the vast Indian middle classes. Like their Filipino counterparts, “many seem indifferent to the wretched lives of neighbors.”

This is “unaimed opulence.” And it morphs into “the absurd paradox of people having mobile phones but no toilets.” That includes us, right? Filipinos hefted 106,987,098 cell phones in 2011. But the number who crap behind bushes bolted by 12 percent in just a decade.

“An Uncertain Glory” jabs at India’s amour-propre. It stacks Delhi’s track record against that of China, then jacks up pressure by tracking south Asian neighbors. “Bangladesh is much poorer than India.” But 56 of every 100 Bangladeshis “increased access to improved sanitation.” It’s 34 for Indians.

China invested in massive expansion of education and health care in the 1970s. The “under-5 mortality rate” for China nose-dived to 15, while it remains 61 for India. It slowed down to 25 for the Philippines—far below the 12 that Sri Lanka achieved, says the “State of the World’s Children 2013.”

Economic growth makes no sense if the generated wealth is monopolized. What does it profit a development model that underscores luxury shopping malls but inflicts misery on millions from lack of basic sanitation?


“Huge social investments proved critical to sustaining China’s impressive economic growth,” Sen’s book argues. “Without comparable foundations, India’s much-lauded economic growth is faltering.”

Here, the Aquino administration earmarked a 42-percent increase in the Conditional Cash Transfer program for 2014 to serve the poorest. This allocates P62.6 billion—up from P44 billion last year—to help 4.3 million of the country’s poorest families.

Under the CCT, these families get P1,200 a month—P300 per child for a maximum of three children, plus P300 for the mother. In return, families commit to keep children in school and, with their mothers, regularly get checkups at the public health center. President Aquino has managed, so far, to beat off scavengers from gorging on this resource.

What underpins once-basket-case Bangladesh’s surge? Among other moves, Dhaka blended government policy and the work of nongovernmental organizations. Bangladesh’s low-interest-rate Grameen Bank and BRAC reach out to the neediest.

BRAC is the world’s largest NGO. Established by Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in 1972, BRAC organizes the isolated poor, especially women. They’re helped to increase access to resources and support projects, from a dairy to a chain of retail handicraft stores. The organization is 70-80-percent self-funded.

“As a result, there has been a dramatic fall in the fertility rate. And girls now outnumber boys in education,” Sen notes. “All this has been achieved despite Bangladesh having half the per capita income of India.”

Here, JLN Corp.’s bogus NGOs are said to have fleeced willing senators of their pork barrel: Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Gringo Honasan. All 20 NGO conduits for JLN were allegedly fraudulent.

After the book’s torrent of facts and figures, should one despair? No, say the authors. Indian states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh provide examples of how social investments have reaped dividends in economic growth.

Often, what holds countries back is not lack of resources. The hardest chains to break are lack of clear-sighted, long-term policies and the political will to implement them. Yet, the muddled consciences of the crucial middle classes can be stirred to usher in reform.

Sen, however, admits to “intellectual wonder”: Why don’t more people see that economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable—and unethical?

The only photograph in Sen’s Cambridge study is that of the poet Rabindranath Tagore with a flowing white beard. “Tagore was too patient,” Sen says today. Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal’s other great poet, was the rebel urging action who wrote: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

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TAGS: absurd paradox, Bangladesh, column, Hygiene, India, Juan L. Mercado, middle class, Philippines, Poverty, sanitation
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