March 31, 2020
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Whole Lota Love

Habit, not poverty, dictates toilet use in countryside

Whole Lota Love
The view from the train window during the early morning journey of the Kalka-New Delhi Shatabdi Express tells the story in an endless scroll. Right in your face are scores of bare bottoms doing what they must. It's a scene so common in Punjab and Haryana, two of India's most prosperous states, that hardly anyone bothers to stare.

Even though indoor toilets are the new rural status symbol in Punjab and Haryana, traditional mindsets haven't changed with prosperity. Take the upper-caste Jats in Punjab's Malwa region. Social activists say that 90 per cent of them now have toilets at home, but the men prefer to defecate in the fields.

In some perverse, feudal way, it's considered unmanly to do the job at home. In many homes, toilets are used only during emergencies like a tummy upset. The family toilet is often found locked, opened only when guests drop in, "to show them that we, too, have a toilet at home." Nawanshahr's deputy commissioner Krishan Kumar says people in Punjab still consider toilets a luxury rather than a necessity.

On National Highway 10, between Hissar and Rohtak, lies village Medina, sliced in half by the highway. Squatting women defecate on the road at night, illuminated by beams of lights from passing cars. They hastily get to their feet when a man approaches, and squat again once he passes. Says social activist Inderjeet Singh of Rohtak: "Women have to suffer the ignominy of getting up twice or thrice like this in one session. Cruelly, women in Haryana are also forced to defecate after dinner, because the cover of darkness gives them privacy and shelters them from prowling Romoes." But that privacy is fast diminishing, he points out. Tree cover is disappearing, and common village lands are being encroached upon, forcing villagers to squat on the sides of roads and gullies.

Despite subsidies aplenty to build toilets, they are not being taken up largely because of the low status of women in these two states: the need for privacy is seen as a woman's problem. "Male-dominated panchayats do not take the initiative to build community or other toilets in villages," says Inderjeet.

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