I take some joy and pride in where I live. A home nestled in the lap of nature, in a somewhat secluded patch. But nothing prepared me for what I saw this morning. While stepping out to drop my son off to his school bus, I noticed a red car parked just outside our gates. I hadn’t seen it there before. Two grown men had just stepped out of it. They were joking around and briefly stood near the bakery just next to their car. I thought nothing of it. Then my brother pointed out that both men were walking into the open clearing opposite the bakery and our property which is fenced-in. The men were armed with large bottles of water- the two litre recycled pepsi bottles that many of us use to store drinking water in. They were walking down the garden-path as it were… guess why? Well, you gotta go when you gotta go! I do get that. But I simply cannot fathom this new phenomenon- people who can afford a car, but not a toilet to relieve themselves!! So they drive up to a suitable place to take a crap. Just how ridiculous is that??
I’ve seen others go that way before. Mostly men who work at the small shops in the neighbourhood. The shops don’t have toilets attached. Men in India have always felt they could just stand against the wall and let themselves go when they needed to. Its the done thing. That’s precisely why most public places smell like public loos. When they have to crap, they find the greener, wooded patches, the kind, folk like I live in. So, when you go thinking, “ah, such greenery, such fresh air…” you get an immediate reality check. The wafting stench of human waste! Sheer delight.
Women, on the other hand feel ‘ashamed’, so they do the next best thing- exercise self-control. They hold on…sometimes so long, they end up with infections. Many go out in the cover of darkness at night and that’s also when in several parts of India, women are attacked, raped and killed or even suffer snake bites. Hard to believe we’re in the 21st century, and in a nation that successfully sends its Mission to Mars, we can’t deal with such basic issues on the ground. The UN calls ‘Open defecation’ a global sanitation crisis- It is unthinkable in 85% of the world, yet is the only option in the other 15%! Can you believe that the practice is so rampant in India that it has the dubious distinction of being home to the world’s largest population of people who defecate in the open? Indians excrete close to 65,000 tonnes of faeces into the environment each day!! Around 595 million people, which is nearly half the population of India, defecate in the open. India accounts for 90 per cent of the people in South Asia and 59 per cent of the 1.1 billion people in the world who practise open defecation. Every minute, 1.1 million litres of human excrement enter the river Ganga! Can you believe that??
So what the hell is wrong with us as ‘a people’!? Why can’t a toilet be a priority for someone even in a city like Bangalore, who can drive down to his favourite crap-point in his car? Unicef has some answers: In India, open defecation is a well-established traditional practice deeply ingrained from early childhood. Sanitation is not a socially acceptable topic, and as a result, people do not discuss it. Consequently, open defecation has persisted as a norm for many Indians. In addition to tradition and the communication taboo, the practice still exists due to poverty; many of the poorest people will not prioritise toilets and besides, many are living in rented homes without toilets.
Society does not view the lack of a toilet as unacceptable. Building and owning a toilet is not perceived as aspirational. Construction of toilets is still seen as the government’s responsibility, rather than a priority that individual households should take responsibility for. The challenge is to motivate people to see a toilet as fundamental to their social standing, status and well-being.
A significant gap also exists between knowledge and practice. Even when people are aware of the health risks related to poor sanitation (specifically of not using a toilet and practising good hygiene), they continue with unhealthy practices.
The practice of open defecation is not limited to rural India, as is evident from my experience. It is found in urban areas too where the percentage of people who defecate in the open is 12 percent, while in rural settings it is about 65 percent. Open defecation in urban areas is driven by a number of reasons including, lack of space to build toilets in high-density settlements and tenants unwilling to invest in toilets where landlords do not provide them. When I lived in Mumbai, it was common-place to see grown people squatting in rows with their pants down along the railway lines each morning. While taking the local trains to work, one saw the backsides of these nameless multitudes taking a dump daily. I’d look away, but that didn’t change the reality. In rural India, open defecation is prevalent among all socio-economic groups although the bottom two wealth quintiles practice it most.
The problem is so serious that the government has been running a host of schemes and projects to deal with the challenge. There has been some improvement, but there are still giant balls of turd out there. Did you know that a budgetary promise of a whopping Rs 40 billion has been made to ensure that every Indian has a toilet? The current dispensation had decided to get 5.3 million latrines constructed by the time it completed 100 days in office. I’m not sure what eventually became of that promise. In recent years, NGOs and state governments have attempted to send those who defecate in the open in urban and rural India scurrying into toilets by shaming them in public. It started with equipping children with whistles, which they would blow at any villager caught relieving themselves in the open. In Maharashtra, the ‘Good Morning’ campaign witnessed volunteers hiding in areas where people defecated in the open and detaining whoever was caught. School bands were made to play in front of ‘toilet-less’ households to shame them into building one. In the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the government put up hoardings which show villagers and dogs defecating in the open side by side, and exhorting villagers to not behave like their four-legged counterparts. Under the ‘Maryada’ campaign in Madhya Pradesh, each village planned a sanitation monitoring committee to take photographs and videos of villagers defecating in the open and threatened a public screening unless they agree to build or use a toilet. Villages in the Nadia district of West Bengal set up “walls of shame” featuring the names and photos of people caught relieving themselves in public. This was done with the idea of attaching a sense of stigma and shame for those defecating in the open.
Here are some more shocking stats about India from Unicef: Only 11 per cent of Indian rural families dispose of child faeces safely. Eighty per cent of children’s faeces are left in the open or thrown into the garbage.
• With 44 per cent of mothers disposing of their children’s faeces in the open, there is a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, and amoeba) of water which causes diarrhoea in children.
• India reports the highest number of deaths due to diarrhoea in children under five in the world. Every year, diarrhoea kills 188,000 children in this age group.
• Children weakened by frequent diarrhoea episodes are more vulnerable to malnutrition, stunting, and opportunistic infections such as pneumonia. About 43 per cent of children in India suffer from some degree of malnutrition.
• The faecal-oral route is an important polio transmission pathway. Open defecation increases communities’ risk of polio infection.
While we’re on the topic, it might help to know that child faeces contain more germs than adults’. Did you know? One GRAM of faeces contains:
• 10,000,000 viruses
• 1,000,000 bacteria
• 1,000 parasite cysts
There is a sense that the sanitation drive in India now is a tale of citizens seeing one another as the problem rather than as allies. Some fear that a drive for a fully sanitised India might be driving one section of society to lose empathy for the others. I can see which side I’m on, but I don’t appreciate the need for empathy from where I am. As an Indian and as a woman living in India, I think we’ve completely overdone this turd-ball in the open thing. More power to all those women who’ve recently turned down potential suitors because their to-be husbands did not have toilets in their homes. How and why on earth are menstruating women or mothers post-child birth, supposed to go out in the open?? Its about time the silence on this sort of thing was broken. I’m so tempted to blow the whistle on those car-borne crappers in my neighbourhood, but I so wish they simply didn’t exist 😦