We can thank Commonwealth Games organising committee general-secretary Lalit Bhanot for placing toilets firmly in the collective consciousness of this nation. “Their (Western) standard of hygiene and cleanliness could be different from ours so there is nothing to be ashamed about it”, Mr Bhanot wondered aloud at a press conference. Ever since those famous words, there is no escape from the toilet story in the Commonwealth Games Village.
The photos of paan-stained washbasins and bathroom floors, combined with dog poo-smeared bedsheets, have gone viral on the Internet as “toiletgate” takes over the conversations of an anguished middle class in the country.
The Sensex may have hit the magical 20,000 mark but disconcertingly, for many of us, the world at large is suddenly more concerned that more people in India have access to mobile phones than to basic sanitation.
Is the toilet a template for the state of a nation or civilisation?
“The toilet is part of the history of human hygiene which is a critical chapter in the growth of civilisation”, says Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, sociologist, toilet czar and the man who started the low-cost Indian toilet system, the globally-acclaimed Sulabh Shauchalaya model.
Contemporary literature also offers useful takeaways. In a cheeky aside, Isadora Wing, the brilliant, hilarious and outrageous heroine of American writer Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying, teases us with the history of the world through its toilets — the British toilet as the last refuge of colonialism where “for one brief moment (as you flush), Britannia rules the waves again”. German toilets observe class distinctions — rough brown paper for a third class railway carriage and white paper called Spezial Krepp in the first class, Jong’s young heroine observes. Isadora links Italian art to the swift way Italian toilets run, is foxed by French philosophy and the Gallic approach to merde (excreta) and is awe-struck by the aesthetics of the Japanese toilet — toilet basin recessed in the floor, flower arrangement behind, inspiring thoughts of Zen.
And Indian toilets? Well, well… One must remember this was the good-old or bad-old Seventies, depending on your politics. India was not an emerging power and Jong’s adventurous but Euro-centric heroine did not have the Indian toilet experience.
What would Jong say if she took a toilet tour of India today after listening to Mr Bhanot’s wise words?
The recent flood of toilet jokes makes us squirm since we are the targets but blunderbuss Mr Bhanot has also touched a raw nerve.
The riveting rise of the Sensex and the “cash and clout” image of India in the world is our outerwear where we sport a designer brand. The sanitation story is more like dirty inner wear which we don’t like to either talk about or change.
Middle-class Indians typically would not have paan-stained washbasins at home. And there is a fortune to be made out of tapping the bathroom vanity of young, rising India. But how many times have you seen the driver and the passenger in the Honda City ahead of you open the car door and spit out the remnants of a paan or chewing tobacco on the road? In my neighbourhood market — in a posh south Delhi enclave — there are spas, but few spittoons; garbage lies in front of stores peddling grand designs in urban living. What irks middle-class India is not that filth and squalor exist but that they are being showcased by a prying media, denting India’s image as an emerging power.
India’s Millenium Development Goals Report (2009) notes that the proportion of Indian households having no sanitation facility has declined from about 70 per cent in 1992-93 (24 per cent urban and 87 per cent rural) to about 51 per cent in 2007-08 (19 per cent urban and 66 per cent rural). But despite recent progress, access to improved sanitation remains far lower in India compared to many other countries with similar or even lower per capita gross domestic product (GDP). Bangladesh, Mauritania, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam — all with a lower GDP per capita than India — are just a few of the countries that have achieved higher access to improved sanitation, says the Asian Development Bank.
India is among a handful of countries where open defecation persists. Through its Total Sanitation Campaign, the government has sanctioned projects for construction of what babudom calls individual household sanitary latrines in all of India’s rural districts. But a lot more action and oversight is needed on the ground to meet the national goal of eradicating open defecation by 2012.
Non-governmental organ isations’ surveys suggest that many among those who have access to individual, community or shared toilets do not use the structure as a toilet. The reasons for non-use of toilets — poor/unfinished installations, no super structure and lack of behavioural change.
As in everything else in India, how and where you excrete is a matter of who you are and your position in the socio-economic pecking order. It comes as no surprise to learn that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have lower access to toilets than upper castes.
Sociologists argue that this grim picture is not just about poverty. It has to do with the deeply-ingrained caste structure in India and notions of purity and pollution embedded in our psyche. First, children of so-called upper castes grow up hearing that cleaning garbage is the job of someone else, and that someone else is still often referred to by names that would put you in jail if uttered in public. Second, in an overcrowded country like India, far too many people also believe keeping your home clean is all you can do. What happens beyond is none of your concern — it is someone else’s job to keep the public places clean, someone who is still considered an untouchable deep down despite laws prohibiting untouchability.
Money alone will not change such a mindset. Without the collective will for change, Sensex will soar even as we trail behind poorer countries in basic sanitation. The India that shocks and agitates, however, also offers inspiration. Many tribal communities can teach us a thing or two about cleanliness. Mr Pathak built the first Sulabh public toilet in Bihar, his home state, in 1974. Now, almost 8,000 such toilets have been built and are maintained across the country. Sulabh toilet complexes also exist in Bhutan and Afghanisthan, and over the next five years Mr Pathak plans to implement the model in 50 other countries.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org