Sanitation illiteracy and changing toilet psychology

Sanitation illiteracy and changing toilet psychology

That mobile phones outnumber toilets in the country is unlikely to change anytime soon if new phone designs continue to be greeted with typical fervor. Conversely, even if toilet designs were to outnumber the surge of new mobiles, the situation may not tilt in favour of toilets either.

Simply put, there is toilet and then there is an idea of a toilet between which the Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh can hardly make a distinction.

The minister may not have lost his sanity, as many believe, by prioritising toilets over temples and by provoking would-be brides to demand toilets before tying the nuptial knot.

Much to the displeasure of Hindu fundamentalists on one extreme and would-be grooms on the other, the minister has raised the right kind of noise to bring toilets back on the national agenda. Will this noise translate into a signal for 638 million people without the virtues of a toilet is the question?

With a vast majority of countrymen having a field day and an equally large number of women folk having a night out for private conveniences, getting them into the toilet has remained an exercise in futility. While his predecessor had set year 2012 as an end to the national shame, Jairam had not only to confront the failed legacy but had to push the deadline to 2017. The recent Nirmal Bharat Yatra, from Sewagram to Betia, has been a step towards the new timeline.

Whosoever has been at the helm, toilets have continued to remain the minister’s objects of desire than that of the intended user. Even support by the state hasn’t been able to lure the open defecators, who have acted instead as defectors to improving our abysmal statistics. Whether or not toilet subsidy reaches the targeted, at Rs 10,000 apiece for a family toilet, there is no less than Rs 1.3 billion on offer nationwide at this point in time. There are hardly any takers, however.

Levels of sanitation illiteracy remain so deep that even after six decades of accumulating evidence, all is not well with the way we have gone about correcting the ‘dirty picture’. A little known political and business daily from Odisha raised a stink recently when it reported that as many as 45 per cent toilets in the state exist only on paper. It would be erroneous to imagine that Odisha alone is building toilets on paper.

Whether or not toilets can be the cause of corruption is not as big an issue in an era of financial scams as the secular nature of continuing public empathy towards squatting. Never has open defecation triggered any caste or class strife, as if appropriating public space for conducting private action has been sacrosanct. For millions, easing in public seems a democratic decree.

Idea of a toilet

Without doubt, it is not toilet, but the idea of a toilet that has yet to sink into the minds of millions. If poor squatters can afford a piece of mobile which they continue to upgrade ever so often, it is hard to imagine why they would not avail state subsidy for investing on brick and mortar for creating a squattie that they can call their own? Why aren’t toilets a part of their aspiration as much as mobile phones are? Isn’t a mobile phone more potent than the idea of a toilet!

Unlike a mobile phone, the toilet is a focus of intense emotions, unseemly interests and strange afflictions that is rarely captured in targeted toilet promotion programmes. Some of the early psychoanalysts wrote that there is actually a deep feeling among people that they might be losing something inside a toilet.

Celebrated author V S Naipaul has put it a bit differently: Indians prefer open defecation to avoid the fear of claustrophobia within a closet. Is that the reason people carry reading material in a loo?  Anecdotally, people might say that they do so because it’s a quiet space and they have lots of time in a toilet.

In reality, however, it is just to avoid being alone in the toilet and to help erase the fear of having lost something. In his recent book, Psychology in the Bathroom, Nick Haslam argues that sensory faculties of humans need engagement of some kind in isolation, be it the confines of a toilet or darkness of a theatre.  

Bathroom psychology as a subject has come handy for marketing firms in recent years. If people can engage themselves gainfully in a toilet, their chance of looking for and staying inside a toilet increases appreciably. A recent survey found that three quarters of people with mobile phones admit to using it in the toilet and one quarter say they don’t go to the toilet without theirs. Does it not tell us about people’s dependence on technology than their dubious toilet habits?  

Technology’s invasion of the lavatory offers a win-win situation for both.Not only are mobile phones getting slimmer and easy to handle, iPads are getting smaller in size on purpose too. Most of the devices are being designed to replace printed matter when it comes to the toilet. An interesting website called the International Centre for Bathroom Etiquette provides perceptive backdrop for technology to innovate for the toilet. And it is happening.

This and much more, the idea of a toilet is more than just a toilet. It is indeed a blessing in disguise that there are more mobile phones than toilets in this country. Because once you have a mobile in hand, a toilet has to be the next best thing to happen. After all, people need privacy of a toilet to make the best use of their mobile phone and vice versa. It won’t be a surprise if a typical bride has first preference for a mobile.
It is empowering. A toilet can only add on. 

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a Delhi-based development writer and critic.)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox