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Off the patch, on the pot

Last Updated : 08 October 2015, 16:55 IST

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Have you seen the toilets in Japan? Electronic toilets that congenially lift their lids and warm their seats upon our arrival, and the solicitous electronic bidets with opulent controls; have you seen them? Probably in pictures.

Have you seen the toilets in Tibet? Lying at the opposite end of the sanitation spectrum are hostile holes in the ground looking forward to our squats; have you seen them? Probably in pictures.

Have you seen the toilets in Jharkhand? In a state where a 17-year-old girl tied herself to a fan because she couldn’t untie the drawstring of her churidar and defecate in privacy, safety, and dignity? In pictures, probably? Probably not. In India, where a mobile phone is more accessible than a toilet, Jharkhand is only one amongst many states choking and drowning in the defecation dilemma.

But isn’t the national campaign, following in the footsteps of a man who placed sanitation above political independence, going to expunge open defecation with its gung-ho construction of pit toilets? Is it?

The 69th National Sample Survey shows that toilets remain inaccessible to 60 per cent of rural households and 10 per cent of urban households, but the SQUAT survey conducted by RICE reveals that 40 per cent of households that have a working toilet have at least one person who regularly practices open defecation.

Why? The average Indian open defecator will give one of the five reasons: 1) Open defecation is pure, hygienic and healthy; 2) Toilets are only for women, the ailing, and elderly; 3) Toilets pollute the house and make it unhygienic; 4) Toilet pits are impure and only the “impure” should empty it; and, 5) Toilets are unaffordable. The last reason is a matter of money but the first four reasons are matters of mentality.

“Bahu betiyan bahar na jayein, Ghar mein hi shauchalay banvayein (Daughters and daughters-in-law shouldn’t go outside, build a toilet inside your house)”, these ubiquitous slogans are trying to win the battles against open defecation and sexual violence against women with one fight. But by tugging at the heartstrings of the patriarchal society, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s advertisement campaign has genderised toilets.

What’s common between cookers, cleaning liquids, and toilets? They are only to be used by women! After defecating in the open, an open defecator might sit down with his family for food and brood about the frequent episodes of diarrhoea suffered by his malnourished and stunted children without realising that his, his family, and several other families’ practice is partially responsible for it.

Prejudicial perceptions

Unbeknownst to them, small amounts of excreta are carried on their feet or by the flies which is passed onto food and water, causing diarrhoea and pneumonia, and culminating in malnutrition, stunting, and the largest number of under-five deaths in the world - 1 in 21. Open defecation is happening because of prejudicial perceptions of purity and pollution. The majority of toilets being constructed are pit toilets.

A pit toilet collects faeces in a pit which has to be manually emptied. Compounding this complication is casteism. Decomposed excreta can be emptied safely but according to tradition, only “untouchables” must empty it. Dogma has yet again dissuaded development.

Unaffordability of toilets for landed and landless families will come undone with the construction of household and community toilets, but what about the matters of mentality? Public campaigns conducted in schools, communities, and households, should unequivocally inform and encourage people to build toilets and practice good hygiene not to reaffirm patriarchy, but to become and remain healthy.

Prim leaders must pry open their mouths and use the influence they have to exhort their supporters to eschew baseless beliefs, and build and use toilets. The problem of emptying pits can be cleared by coupling toilets with biogas plants.

Simplified sewerage is a sewer system that comprises small diameter pipes that are laid at shallower depths and flatter gradients in comparison to conventional sewers; it’s more flexible in design and suitable for unplanned low-income areas.

This simplified sewerage, which will connect all the houses in a community and collect faeces and waste water from them, will in turn be connected to a biogas plant. The biogas produced can be supplied to houses via pipeline. The initial expenditure is higher but we can cut the costs of open defecation, manual scavenging, and environmental pollution. So, what does it take to oust open defecation? Constructing toilets and deconstructing mindsets.

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Published 08 October 2015, 16:55 IST

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