Although the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have raised their share of scepticism, they are significant for a few reasons. Firstly, they set countries a target date - 2015, barely eight years away - by which to accomplish certain goals. And second, there is nothing that countries dislike more than to be compared with a neighbour in roughly the same per capita income bracket - Pakistan being a classic example - and to find that it is faring better on some counts. Another helpful contribution of the MDGs is that the targets and measurements enable donors to fund those countries at the bottom of the scale to catch up with the rest.

Although India now believes that it is an aid-giving country, rather than a recipient - despite being home to the largest number of poor and undernourished people in the world - its progress on one focus of the MDGs, water and sanitation, is painfully slow. The UN's target is to halve those in the world without access to clean water (1.2 billion) and sanitation (2.4 billion) by 2015. And India's progress towards this standard is both slow and sketchy. Particularly regards water, the country's official figures are misleading, because a village is termed 'covered' by this programme if a single hand pump has been installed in village, never mind that even this is dry most of the time. What the programme is providing is not water, but the infrastructure for it!

Similarly, there is a huge gap between the number of family toilets built and those which continue to function, due to the shortage of water and other factors. Experts in this sector regale each other with stories of how toilets built in poor areas throughout the world have been put to alternative uses, often as the best-built, only tiled structure in village homes. In many Indian villages, they have been used to tether cattle. A report brought out last year by WaterAid India, a Delhi-heaquartered British-affiliated NGO concluded that 'sanitation for all' still has a long way to go.

The reasons, according to WaterAid, are that despite huge outlays, there were institutional challenges. These included "addressing leakages in official spending, monitoring of progress and creating linkages between different agencies". Typically, sanitation schemes have relied on heavy subsidies - a supply-driven approach. This has been criticised, most strongly by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme, because it does not take into account people's real needs. The Bank, which emphasised its alternative strategy at a South Asian sanitation conference in Islamabad late last year, sees the problem in terms of making people demand sanitation - for convenience, dignity, privacy, hygiene and a host of related factors.

The emphasis must be on individual latrines, rather than the earlier unsuccessful attempts to provide community toilets, which are shoddily maintained.

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The central government too has veered round to this approach and introduced the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) in 1999. Under it, initiatives are demand-driven and community-led. The coverage has as a consequence spread rapidly, and is now in all but a dozen districts in the country. Panchayati raj institutions play a pivotal role in the programme and the costs of subsidies are now shared between the centre and state governments and beneficiaries. There is also an even more effective Swajaldhara programme for water and sanitation which, as its name suggests, relies on self-help, especially involving women.

Even so, among poor countries in Asia, India figures only marginally better than Cambodia at the very bottom of the pile in that less than a fifth of its rural population has access to sanitation, while 40 per cent of rural Bangladeshis and 45 per cent of Pakistanis do. A UNICEF study in 2004 confirmed that there is a huge gap between toilet construction and use among the rural poor in the country. Last year, a UN Millennium Development Goal report pointed out that there is "very low coverage" in South Asia. Out of 28 Indian states, only seven had launched Swajaldhara and only one had completed a project - Tamilnadu. Funds do not appear to be the problem: more the lack of will. Under TSC, each district was entitled to Rs.20 crores. A third was disbursed when the project report was properly submitted. Not a single state had qualified for the remaining two-thirds yet.

Early this month, Indian NGOs involved in the innovative WASH international campaign - Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All - met in Delhi to take stock of the movement to deliver water and sanitation (abbreviated to 'watsan'). Attendees at the Delhi meet shared their experiences, which were for the most part negative. Pravah, an initiative in Gujarat comprising activists and academics working on watsan, cited how the Swajaldhara programme specified that one-third of those who delivered watsan should be women, but such participation remained only on paper. Women had no real voice in the shape and direction of schemes. Indeed, there was hardly any participation of women in gram sabha deliberations.

Pravah had pioneered the concept of mobilising communities to identify and take up water harvesting in villages to recharge drinking water sources. As things are, people still rely on overhead tanks rather than community sources like wells and tanks because of the unreliability of the water sources. Pravah, which is inspired by its associate, Utthan, has detailed a water policy vision for the entire parched state, which seeks to reduce the dependence on groundwater (many environmentalists criticise Gujarat for 'mining' water for industrial use). Gujarat has still to finalise its water policy and draw out a plan to protect its water sources; instead it is relying too heavily on Narmada water which can only reach certain districts. Pravah believes that panchayats should be empowered to protect local water sources.

Under TSC, reports Pravah, there is correctly emphasis on individual latrines, rather than the earlier unsuccessful attempts to provide community toilets, which were shoddily maintained. However, only families below the poverty line are given subsidies for construction, which left out other families. After all, there is no direct correlation between income levels and the use of toilets in rural areas. Experts often cite how well-to-do agrarian families in Haryana proudly drive in their Marutis to perform their morning ablutions in a remote corner of a village!

Several NGOs observed that there are far too many official departments dealing with water (and by corollary, sanitation), which only complicates the problem. Under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1992, gram panchayats have been assigned a pivotal role, but there is still lack of clarity regarding this. Pravah recommends the formation of 'pani samitis' in villages to handle watsan holistically and believes that at least half the members ought to be women, who bear a double burden when it comes to sanitation and hygiene. Ideally, the NGO would like a convergence of water, sanitation and watershed programmes, since they are so closely linked.

Joe Madiath, from Gram Vikas in Orissa, castigated the official approach to rural sanitation as "wherever any official agency digs three holes and puts rings around them". Swajaldhara was the Cinderella of the programme because, with people's self-help, the role of public health engineers, who have ruled the roost in these schemes, is limited. These engineers, by their training and mind-set, are unaccustomed to working with people. In the nation as a whole, they have been more involved in the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme. He revealed how the 10 per cent contribution from beneficiaries of this scheme was extracted from contractors who, in turn, inflated their construction costs "by adding metres to their borewell drilling".

In Orissa, a state-level committee to supervise TSC and Swajaldhara, consisting of the Chief Secretary and two NGOs, had hardly met. He questioned the measly Rs.1200 subsidy for a toilet for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, thereby restricting the total cost to under Rs.2000, which was "a reward for shoddiness". As he put it, "low-cost need not be more economical" if it meant poor usage. Instead, Gram Vikas provided well-built toilets and included a bathing facility. "Bathing is as important as sanitation for women," he observed, "because it ensures privacy." Gram Vikas, which has just won a $1 million international development award, has helped 35,000 families construct toilets in 325 villages, 45 of these before Swajaldhara was launched.

Madiath has long been critical of the 'mental attitude' of politicians, donor agencies and people in power towards delivering second, third and fourth rate watsan to poor villagers. He has repeatedly questioned whether such people would ever use the toilets which they advocate so uncritically for the poor. Moreover, he wondered why rural people were always supposed to pay for the services, whereas urban dwellers were subsidised. In Bangalore, consumers pay only 12 per cent of what water costs to be delivered to households, while in Delhi it is just 5 per cent.

Importantly, Madiath advocated doing away with the BPL and APL distinction when it came to subsiding toilets. Typically, sanitation is not given the prominence it deserves because it is relatively easier for men to relieve themselves in rural and urban areas alike. If anyone who is supposed to be better off in villages still doesn't possess a toilet, her family surely deserves support, no matter the family's economic status.