“Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly besides the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.”
An Area of Darkness, 1964
An Area of Darkness, 1964
Not to put too fine a point on it, India’s no. 1 problem is no. 2. And for an all-too-brief while last week, the squatting figures dotting the landscape—“eternal and emblematic as Rodin’s thinker” in the Nobel laureate’s immortal words—looked set to emerge out of the bushes and shadows in an election season, as the bjp’s Narendra Modi, whose advertised motto is “India First”, momentarily gave flight to his vision of “Toilet First”.
“My image does not permit me to say so, but my real thought is, ‘Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya (Toilets first, temples later)’,” Modi said, as he sought to buff up his image as more than just a Hindutva leader. “It’s a sad situation that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open. Villages have hundreds of thousands of temples but no washrooms. This is bad. Gandhiji gave so much importance to this issue.”
Holy shit! Had wisdom finally dawned on those sitting on the throne (and those aspiring), 50 years after Naipaul’s whiplash? Union minister Jairam Ramesh had only six months ago said more or less the same thing. That 64 per cent of Indians still do it in the open, a global record. That this is the main cause of India’s malnutrition. And that—hold on to the seat of your pants—this costs the nation $54 billion (Rs 3,24,000 crore) every year in premature deaths and treatment of the sick, wasted time and productivity, and lost tourism revenues.
“There is no use blasting Agni missiles if the sanitation problem is not solved,” Jairam, who confesses he spends most of his waking hours thinking about toilets, said. “It’s more important than the launch of Agni missiles. If there are no toilets, then Agni is of no use. The price of just one fighter aircraft is enough to free one thousand villages from open defecation.”
Where’s a good spot? Women walking the tracks in Calcutta. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
With India’s two biggest political parties seemingly on the same page on the issue, the stage seemed miraculously set for a long, hard look at why we are like this only—and the way forward. But the familiar bad odour of mutual recrimination, over whether such belated BJP enlightenment would have spared the demolition of Babri Masjid and all else that has followed, buried India’s sitting shame under a rubble of platitudes and cliches. A squeamish nation turned its nose away—it’s after all steeped in a caste system defined by avoidance of this subject. All the factors that have pockmarked India’s insensitive approach to a basic right of citizens—hygiene, sanitation, health—were again on stark display. And a promising toilet story hit an all-too-familiar pause, unfortunate for the two out of every three Indians who battle diarrhoea, malaria, trachoma and intestinal worms every day of their lives because we don’t stare the problem in the face.
While men will be boys, merrily using walls to relieve themselves and joking at those who can’t, those who feel the brunt of this lackadaisical political approach are women, the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the differently abled, who are condemned to perform what is a normal bodily function in the most demeaning of circumstances because the state cannot provide. And if the situation in metropolitan India is pathetic, it’s positively subhuman in territories beyond it. A few soundbites from the vast countryside to put things in perpsective:
Indeed, Jairam Ramesh’s fate as a minister in the Manmohan Singh team underlines the low priority accorded to an issue dogged by stereotypes of gender, caste, class and privilege. When Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy confessed in an interview that he washed the toilet when he reached home at night, the news was received with incredulousness. A rich man cleaning his own and admitting to it on TV? Sacrilege.
Ditto Jairam. When he advocated toilets over temples, wary Congress leaders distanced themselves from him, and Sangh parivar activists urinated outside his bungalow in protest. When he persuaded Vidya Balan to be brand ambassador for the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan, people wondered how much money was being paid to the popular actress. When he coined the slogan “No toilet, no bride,” there were few takers. Jairam went on record to say that his cabinet colleagues often made fun of him for his obsession with toilets. Indeed, the buzz is that the sanitation portfolio was taken away from him for precisely that reason.
Amitabh Bachchan, during a poll campaign in the ’80s. (Photograph by Fotolook)
A similar call by Modi, however, rallied Congress leaders who attacked him for acquiring basic wisdom belatedly. Had Modi acquired enlightenment 20 years ago, quipped Jairam, the nation could have been spared a whole epoch of trauma and violence—the Babri demolition, and ensuing events like the Bombay blasts and Gujarat riots. Others questioned Modi’s own track record in Gujarat and accused him of doing little to promote toilets in the state. Mukul Sinha, the lawyer-cum-activist, wrote on his blog that a quarter of the houses even in Sabarmati, a saffron citadel and home to the Motera cricket stadium and a power house, did not have toilets.
There is little that is new or novel in what Jairam has been saying or in what Modi has now repeated. Both UNICEF and the WHO have been warning of an imminent public health disaster in India, pointing to non-existent or poor sanitation in the countryside. Absence of functional toilets was linked to dropouts from schools. And the scourge of open defecation to diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid and the death of half-a-million children every year due to water-borne diseases.
Environmentalist Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has come up with a report titled ‘Excreta Matters’ which maps the sewage system of 71 Indian cities “drowning in their own excreta” and dumping them into rivers, killing them in the process. Water and sanitation, the report stresses, cannot be treated separately. The government, in its wisdom, has not only separated the departments but placed them under different ministers. “The rich and the powerful get away by using more resources and more water for their own use,” she says, adding scathingly, “it’s a case of rich people’s shit versus poor people’s water.”
Jairam Ramesh, in a sense, was compelled to go on an overdrive by the scale of the problem, points out former Planning Commission member Dr N.C. Saxena. The Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), launched by the government in 1999, had claimed that it had provided access to toilets to over 80 per cent of the population by the end of 2009. But while the ministry claims to have constructed 8.7 crore toilets, the Household Census of 2011 reveals only 5.16 crore households actually have toilets even now. Naturally, when this little detail came out, there were red faces everywhere. Where had 3.5 crore toilets gone missing? But the ‘missing toilets scam’ didn’t even get a blink out of officialdom. They sought to gloss over it explaining that the toilets were probably being used as storage space for fodder or as shelter for domestic animals. The very real possibility of money having been siphoned off was never investigated by the states. Even in the capital Delhi, several public toilets, built as PPP projects, languish with their doors locked to the peeing public, while their exteriors serve as advertising signboards.
Spare the walls Scene near Old Delhi railway station. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
There are other problems interrelated with this. Rural women have to relieve themselves in small groups to protect themselves from harassment: an alarmingly high number of them get raped or killed every year while out responding to nature’s call. Bihar, for example, officially recorded 870 cases of rape in 2012 and in a large number of them, suggest media reports, victims were abducted when they had stepped out to relieve themselves. There is no official data on such cases. Nor are there any figures on women bitten by snakes and scorpions while defecating in the open pre-dawn.
Defecating in the open is part of India’s culture, insists Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, an NGO dedicated to the elimination of manual scavenging. An ancient Hindu scripture, Devi Purana, he claims, has an injunction that people should not defecate in or around the house. It advises people to walk a reasonable distance, dig a ditch, defecate and then cover it up with plants and earth. But while people continued to defecate in the open, they conveniently forgot about digging the ditch and covering it up.
Why is it that a country obsessed with food cannot deal with its end product? The whole complex of disgust, shame and low humour around it continues to foster an attitude of avoidance. We are least outraged by the profligacy of our babudom when it comes to toilet habits. Like when news came that the Planning Commission had spent over Rs 30 lakh in renovating two toilets at its office in Delhi (compare this to the subsidy of Rs 10,000 for building individual toilets in rural areas). Then there was the Goa government, which reportedly spent Rs 20 lakh-plus in building a single, air-conditioned toilet in the constituency of an ex-CM while 60 per cent of the country’s population continue to defecate in the open.
Pathak, a Padma Bhushan awardee, is credited with pioneering the efforts to persuade people to opt for toilets. When he first visited China in 1987, he recalls, it was the Chinese attitude to sanitation that struck him. The Chinese in the countryside defecated in buckets and the excreta was then dumped in a well located at a corner of the courtyard. An outlet from the well led to the pigsty. And once every month, the remaining excreta would be taken out to the fields and spread as manure. He remembers a Chinese proverb which held that those women are the luckiest whose daughters-in-law took the lead in emptying buckets of shit into the well. “Such an expectation in India would of course be unthinkable,” he adds.
But he admits that the problem is even more acute today than when he started off in 1969, the Gandhi centenary year. The population has grown but the nation’s infrastructure just hasn’t kept pace. He also blames the bureaucratic approach of the government. Giving subsidies to the poor makes no sense, he feels. “The priorities of the poor are different; food and shelter have greater urgency for them than toilets,” he says. Pathak also feels that the subsidy of Rs 10,000 is too low for individual toilets, Rs 40,000 would be a more reasonable amount, he feels. And he would of course like the money to be given to NGOs like his to build the toilets.
Steady, please A makeshift loo in a Mumbai slum
Does the solution then lie in toilet complexes for the community? Caste hierarchies, it is said, could defeat this approach. The higher castes would not like to share a common complex with others and segregation on caste lines is obviously illegal. But some are enthusiastic about a community approach: if you centralise plumbing, it would ensure faster coverage at much lower costs, optimise the use of water and facilitate biogas production, while freeing up the execution of another Indian imperative—low-cost housing—by obviating the need to replicate complicated plumbing.
India’s much-vaunted scientific and technical establishment, however, has shown little urgency on the biogas issue. There have been baby steps though. The Indian Railways has now sought to fit its trains with improved, biodegradable toilets using the waterless toilet technology developed by the DRDO for the use of soldiers at high altitudes. Larsen & Toubro has also fabricated a mobile toilet for use in urban areas. But none of this has proved to be cost-effective yet.
Finally, at the heart of the problem is increasingly scarce water resources and expensive sewage systems. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week brought their “Reinventing the toilet” challenge to India on Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Asked if he ever felt he was fighting a losing battle, Jairam had told Outlook, “In India, every battle you fight is a losing battle. When you travel in trains as much as I do, every morning there is a trigger for the preoccupation with toilets.”
Source: Reports of the GoI
Sanitation Is Improving, Just Not Fast Enough
Congratulations on taking up an issue that is the most embarrassing for India (The Throneless, Oct 21). However, building public toilets is far easier than maintaining them. Availability of water, user education, prevention of hardware and water theft are a few issues. What’s needed are least water-consuming, theft-proof toilets. Perhaps Outlook can announce a contest for the best design. This is a serious suggestion, not a facetious one. It is also necessary to have paid toilets with attendants at all places. Charges should be at least Rs 5-10. Even the poor wouldn’t mind shelling out a rupee or two for relieving themselves in dignity.
Sudhir Apte, Satara
When Narendra Modi follows Jairam Ramesh in expressing a preference for toilets over temples, we know a national conversation has begun. It’s worth asking why toilets and sanitation have been neglected in our country for so long, given the scale of our problem. The old alibi of size and poverty wilts in the face of figures that mark out India as an outlier in the indoor toilets ‘rankings’. Even Bangladesh, poorer than we are, has managed to provide access to indoor toilets to 90 per cent of its people. Sri Lanka is positively First World in this regard. The absence of lavatories should be seen in conjunction with that other great absence: of primary schools. Education and sanitation are the two most spectacular failures of Indian public policy.
J. Akshobhya, Mysore
I know of many low-income households in my town which have toilets in their homes. Yet, people still go out in the open as they do not have enough water to flush. Perhaps the Bill Gates Foundation could consider ‘reinventing’ the toilet.
S.L. Murthy, Visakhapatnam
Toilets, or at least urinals, are needed at all public places—be it petrol pumps, bus stops, public parks, commercial complexes, schools or temples.
D.V. Mohana Prakash, Mysore
It’s not just about building toilets, it’s as much about keeping them clean. Go to the swankiest mall and you see the toilets leave much to be desired. Even the elite in India will keep the toilets in their house clean, courtesy servants and maids, but won’t leave public toilets clean.
Arun Maheshwari, Bangalore
It’s not enough to be concerned exclusively about toilets. Indians need to get over their general apathy towards public hygiene, and the long list includes spitting, littering, strewing garbage and so on.
R.V. Subramanian, Gurgaon
It’s high time we inculcated a sense of hygiene in the minds of people. This can be done only by using a campaign mode approach involving people—especially women and girls. As the district collector of Nizamabad, Andhra Pradesh, in 2002-03, I oversaw the installation of one lakh toilets dovetailing many government programmes and with the total participation of the community. I played on the atma-gauravam (self-pride) of the women, especially adolescent girls, to push my agenda of “no guard of honour” (when women would stand up as vehicles would pass by. The campaign led to a massive improvement in people’s health.
Asok Kumar, on e-mail
When the poor in villages and migrants in the cities continue defecating in the open and fisherfolk use the seashore as an open-air toilet, I do not know how you mean to say Kerala is a 100 per cent open-defecation-free state.
K.P. Rajan, Mumbai
A nugget from recent history. Chaudhary Charan Singh, PM for all of 23 days, had in his first and last speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort said his first priority would be to ensure every Indian had access to a latrine (the word he used). Unfortunately, Indira’s Congress pulled the rug from under his feet. What if!
A.K. Ghai, Mumbai
The people of India should give up their fixation for mobile phones and prioritise the facilitation of toilets for each of our brethren.
K. Chidanand Kumar, Bangalore
We now have technology to use sewage as a resource. The biomethane produced from it can be used as fuel, the rich organic matter in it can be processed into fertiliser. With 1.2 billion people, India needs to look at building infrastructure that not only provides toilets but also uses the sewage generated every day to pay at least partially for the cost of building a toilet network. Do this properly, and it might be possible to make a profit, at least in concentrated population centres like cities and larger towns. The trend in environmental circles in the West now is to look at “waste” as a resource. India needs to change its policymakers’ thinking to parallel current thought trends on waste in the West. There is much to be gained from doing this—dignity for people who do not have toilets, power and fertiliser sources for greening the environment to a substantial extent, and general hygiene. In a country whose engineers write software for Formula 1 races, the brains needed to do this can surely be found.
Mehul Kamdar, Appleton
I have experienced toilets before temples in the late ’50s when we had to go back to our ancestral house in Thekkegramom, Chittoor, Kerala. There were dry latrines in every house, but the menfolk would every morning rush to the farther bank of the shallow river (aptly called Shokanashini, dispeller of sorrow) and squat in their appointed places. This early morning ritual was religiously enacted on those vast toilet grounds with a small but imposing temple of Ganesha being a mute and annoyed witness to it.
C.V. Venugopalan, Palakkad
Apropos your cover story (The Throneless..., Oct 21), the appropriate name for a society that does not have proper toilets in its public places is a jungle. Even the Sulabh Shauchalaya concept, started with great vim and vigour, seems to have lost its steam now. One should have an international loo day to force authorities to focus on this issue.
My remark alludes to the statement of Modi as a Hindutva leader:
"..........My real thought is-- Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya ....,....,"
It makes a difference when you shout from the top of a temple!
It makes a difference when you shout from the top of a temple!
Incidentally I thought he made the remark during a speech somehwere. Was he standing on top of a temple when he made the speech? The news reports do not make any mention of this.
"Jairam Ramesh spoke and no one paid any attention to him. Modi speaks and Outlook devotes an edition on sanitation with emphasis on showing how other states are better at providing sanitation than Gujarat."
159 Ramesh Ramachandra sir,
When "Darwin theory' improved, the four legged
became two. And the 'Pressure point" cant escape
the gravitational force,that cornered to a hole, got greasy
after performance and grass was of no help.
I enjoyed your post.
Completely agree with you that toilet paper is unhygienic and unclean. As I have already said, using water to wash up after defecation IS the most hygienic method. But it has the inherent drawback of messing up the toilet, and requires the user to take greater care after the fact as a consideration for the next person. Also, just imagine the environmental havoc (deforestation) created by the demand for toilet paper. In a lighter vein:-
In days of old/
When knights were bold/
And paper wasn't invented/
They used to wipe their ass/
Over the grass/
And walk away contended.
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