Why Toilet is not a Prem Katha (Love Story)

Open defecation is bad and unhealthy, researches have established. But this is a complex issue which governments have to deal in a sensitive and humane manner.

A few days before the release of his Hindi movie, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was seen in a guest appearance as a district magistrate in a Hindi comedy serial, Bhabiji Gharpe Hain, in one of its episodes as part of his film’s promotion.

In the episode, on the invitation of a couple of women (lead actors in the serial), Kumar goes to an open field where a couple of men (supporting actors in the serial) are defecating. Unfazed by his questions as they continue with their private act in the open, he inches near them. Irked by the presence of a stranger while they are relieving themselves, they ask him to identify himself only to be physically lifted by him to the air. The ladies standing as witness cheer him up and remind the two culprits (as has been made to look in the scene) that Kumar is the district collector.

Presented before crores of Indians who watched this episode, the scene is actually a reality of how there is an attempt by many government officials and other Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) campaigners to force people to shun open defecation and resort to toilets.

On June 16, three municipal council employees and the Commissioner of the Nagar Parishad in Pratapgarh district of Rajasthan beat to death a social activist because he tried to prevent them from taking photographs of slum dwelling women, who were out in the open to attend to the nature’s calls, to name and shame the women. This shook the conscience of many in the country. But nothing has changed, especially in so far as abusing, naming and shaming people who use public places to relieve themselves. Unfortunately, high ranked officials have not refrained from using unconstitutional and insensitive methods all in the name of building awareness and demotivating people from open defecation.

On July 23, the District Magistrate of Bihar’s Aurangabad district advised villagers to sell their wives if they failed to build toilets.

In a brazen show of insensitivity, he asked the people in a village, attending a meeting organised to create awareness on toilets, to raise hands if they thought value of their wives was less than Rs.12,000, the amount provided by the government to the poor to construct a toilet. Few days back, again in Rajasthan, a Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of the Bhilwara district issued an order to snap electricity connection of all households of a village if they failed to build toilets within 15 days. It was reported that only about 20 per cent of the villagers have built toilets and the district administration was finding it difficult to motivate the others. Even from among the ones who have built toilets, many are not using them either for defects in the structures or for behavioural problems.

At the same time six villagers from nearby villages were arrested by district officials because they were caught defecating in the open, reported newspapers. The officials charged them with disrupting peace under Section 151 of the CrPC. They were later released on bail but not without sending a shocker to all the villagers in the district. The complaint of villagers about lack of financial assistance, lack of water and drainage systems has not been heard. However, there have been severe coercive action by the administration in the madness to meet SBA targets.

Awareness drive has to be humane, sensitive

In what should have been a drive to build awareness with love, affection and care has turned out to be a coercion. Open defecation is bad and unhealthy, researches have established. But this is a complex issue which the government has to deal in a sensitive and humane manner. The current government at the centre is being hailed for the way in which no less than the Prime Minister has taken the lead in the campaign for sanitation and cleanliness. However, there seems to be a kind of desperation to fulfil targets of building toilets as part of this SBA and that’s resulting in officials and others resorting to such inhumane ways not acceptable in a free and democratic country. Not having a toilet is not illegal in India, nor is defecating in open.

But the message adopted by many of the advertisements of the SBA itself has been found to be coercive in nature. Many of the messages have been designed in ways that demean the people who defecate in the open and directly attack their dignity. It would make them ashamed of what they are doing and they might end of finding themselves doing a big crime. There is rampant naming and shaming of people, who defecate in the open, in these advertisements. These may turn to be a real ‘Blue Whale game,’ who knows? This is unacceptable.

Open defecation is an age old practice, toilet is a new thing. While there is a huge section of the older generation that is yet to change its behaviour pattern with regard to use of toilets, for many others there are other compulsions. Poverty, lack of water availability, and unclean public toilets are just a few. Just building toilets won’t help unless most of these challenges are addressed. Many reports of the government suggest that all these factors restrain people from using toilets even when they are built. A CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) report of 2015 pointed out how more than 20 per cent of school toilets either remained locked or used as storerooms. A recent media report found out how a man was using the toilet, built with government support, as kitchen. That’s both a behavioural and functional issue, both for the schools as well as the households.

Issues are complex, need careful and strategic interventions

A couple of years ago I was invited by an NGO in Gajapati district of Odisha to observe their ongoing awareness programme in a few villages where they have been trying to motivate villagers to build toilets and use them. While visiting families to know the effectiveness of the programme, I stumbled upon a Bramhin couple in their 60s and among the only three Bramhin (higher caste) families who had toilets but were not using it. They had their own reasons for not using the toilets.

They built the toilet with the government assistance by adding almost 50 per cent extra amount to add a bathroom to it. However, the toilet was used only when their grandchildren visit them. Initially they took up the toilet as a matter of pride because in the village highly divided on caste lines, the higher castes should not look backward than the lower ones. Some of the Dalits in the other hamlet were already planning to build toilets and hence they too wanted to have one. But the lady of the house could not use the toilet because, she said, she failed to defecate unless the grasses of open fields touched her body. The man, on the other hand, found the toilet inside the house insane because of the presence of the idols worshipped inside. There could be hundreds of reasons that might look funny and silly to the urban middle class Indians who are born with toilets at their homes, but these are stereotypes that are as ingrained in our society as many others that exist for ages.

They did not want to change their habits at this age anymore no matter who advises them to do so. Their son had no objection to use the toilet but he enjoyed the company of friends while defecating near the river and then came home after bathing. He basically seized the time for socialising. Same is the matter with many other women. The awareness about health risks does not change their behaviour much because they have no health facilities nearby. They depend on quacks for most of their treatments. Then, no one has ever been able to convince them about the exact link of sanitation to any health risks. Stunting is not something that’s visible to them; diarrhoea and skin diseases are so common to be visible. Awareness may work here, but will take years. One need to have patience. We are not yet in a military rule!

Toilets without water put more burden on women

Then there is another major issue that both SBA and many others overlook. Toilets without assured water connection is as good as having no toilets and if we insist on their use, the women will be further burdened with the responsibility of fetching water for all in the family. I have found that out in my own research. In 2016, while travelling to some of the worst drought affected rural areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh, I bumped into about three broad scenarios as far as ‘toilet use’ is concerned. First, many villages – especially the remote ones majorly inhabited by indigenous communities – had no toilet at all; second, a few villagers had toilets but most remained unused; and third, where there were a few toilets, only the aged and ailing were using them. Of the approximately 20 villages I visited, I could safely say that 99 per cent of the people practised open defecation, even though toilets were available for about 10 per cent of the population visited, and a few more were under construction.

In normal times too people don’t use toilets because of lack of water supply. In times of drought, when people have to travel more and spend up to 300 to 400 per cent more time in collecting water – as observed during my study in these villages – people would for sure abandon the toilets. This is exactly what they relayed to me.

Respecting Right to Privacy in public places

India has taken up an ambitious goal of ending open defecation completely by 2nd October 2019 – Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary – but that can’t be fulfilled only with physical availability of toilets. The government needs to understand that. What is more important to understand is that a government cannot force people to use toilets only to fulfil a target the policy makers and political leaders set by themselves, without understanding the complexities and realities of the issue. As such also sanitation is not only about toilets but scores of other things. While we cannot punish our officials and politicians for pollution of rivers, water bodies, lack of sewerage treatment and death of millions due to pollution, putting the onus on the individual citizen for non-use of toilet or defecating in the open is uncalled for.

The Supreme Court of India has just ruled in favour of Right to Privacy as a Fundamental Right to all citizens. Defecation is a private act and about half of Indians conduct this private affair of theirs in public places.

Let them have the Right to Privacy there too as long as we have not been able to make all of them use toilets. I am all for the ambitious targets of SBA but let this be achieved in practically crafted and strategically implemented manners that take the people on board with love, care and compassion. Coercion is undemocratic, hence not for India!

All images by Sharada Prasad CS/Open Defecation along Mumbai local train tracks

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