Let's talk crap

The right to relieve oneself with dignity is marred by social inequity and toxic patriarchy

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A few years ago, while driving through Sri Lanka, I remarked about how clean the countryside was. Our driver, who had been to India, asked, “What is it about open defecation in your country?”

It was a sincere question, not meant to offend, but I remember shrivelling with embarrassment. I could offer no answer. 

While we observed many problems in common — unemployment, corruption, air pollution, exploitation and poverty — there wasn’t that depressing odour of squalor that one encounters in suburban and rural India. The overwhelming stench of human excrement, a smell we have normalised as part of the poverty porn of the Indian experience, the whiff of shame that coexists nonchalantly with our shiny luxury automobiles and the beautiful forevers, our garish citadels of grandiose wealth. 

It was perplexing to hear our prime minister declare, while on a foreign tour, that every Indian village has electricity and is free of open defecation. Though it is untrue, I won’t argue with the first tall claim. It’s physics: if your heart beats, there’s electricity. But something smells off about the second one.

If you get used to seeing the country from a great height, saare jahan se achha (to quote our first astronaut). Closer to the ground, windows rolled down, the pagodas of poop that decorate our streets and countrysides constitute a multisensory assault. Compounding the obvious olfactory discomfort, open defecation poses a serious public health hazard through the contamination of food and water, and the spread of dangerous diseases, including cholera and polio, which impact child health and infant mortality. 

India leads the ignominious list of countries with the worst statistics for this dire sanitation crisis. Until 2014, data tells us, over 520 million of our people relieved themselves in the open. We have evidence of that number dropping (no pun intended) owing to the large-scale construction of toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission, but the program is nowhere near complete although its proponents have been accepting felicitations from the international community. 

Statistics tell us that, globally, people have better access to mobile phones than to toilets. Ironically, filthy public toilets are so often the reason why people choose to do their business outdoors. Lack of hygiene is a disincentive for much-needed behavioural change. A functioning toilet is more than a concrete structure. It must be equipped with water supply, plumbing and sewerage systems. It must be kept clean and ventilated, and it must be accessible and offer privacy. Most of all, it must feel safe to use. Achieving this complex, multifaceted goal calls for a sincere commitment to change, not an obsession with optics. 

Letting a thousand lavatories bloom was doubtless an excellent publicity stunt, but it takes more than a mass construction drive to sustainably address a social issue of this magnitude. The solution cannot be short-term or simplistic. It doesn’t end at building more toilets, although this is necessary, but requires initiative on a war footing to educate people about their use and maintenance. What’s needed is a mindset change, a cultural shift.

A deep social inequity gnaws at the core of this problem, kept alive by a prevalent patriarchy. We may claim to have won the battle against COVID-19, but the execrable social evil of manual scavenging remains unvanquished. Pay-and-use toilets are out of bounds for poor Indians who can’t afford the daily cost of using them, however nominal. Public lavatories in many parts of India are off limits for Dalits and citizens marginalised by the caste system. The binary categorisation of public toilets is blind to the needs of trans-people. 

Inadequate sanitation infrastructure limits the freedom of women to answer their bodily needs. While men are at liberty to unzip and spray the walls, or squat and drop, at the slightest provocation, women feel less safe doing so. A woman going out to relieve herself must choose the time of day carefully; she has to go under the cover of darkness, away from prying eyes, often wearing a garment unsuitable for the purpose, and with inadequate access to water. More so, she must watch out for lurking predators. Crimes against women, particularly rape and sexual assault, have a high degree of correlation with the lack of safe sanitation facilities.

Women are now standing up to patriarchy by demanding their rights. Many have dumped (yes, that’s the right word) husbands whose homes didn’t have toilets. More power to them. Taking inspiration, realtors should advertise homes as 2T2BHK, to emphasise the number of toilets.

We can each do our bit for a more equal society. Persuade Residents Welfare Associations to have separate lavatories for men and women staff, push your councillor, MLA or MP to build more toilets, and much more.  

Meanwhile, our reputation as a rising global power remains untarnished. Hey, we’re still Number One at Number Two! 

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