Toilets vs places of worship debate

Toilets Vs places of worship debate

Toilets Vs places of worship debate

Recently, BJP’s PM designate made a speech where he highlighted the issue of sanitation. In response, I tweeted that “I applaud Narendra Modi’s call for prioritising shauchalaya (toilets) over devalaya (places of worship). Don’t think any Indian woman can find fault with this vision.” But I was proved wrong! People brought to my notice responses of women who clearly had issues even with this idea. I will briefly dwell on the politics behind the response, before moving to the more serious topic that Modi had sought to address.

The politics

People who objected to Modi’s statement basically made two points. They claimed that it was a not a new idea because Jairam Ramesh had already raised it earlier. Moreover, when he talked about his shauchalaya plan, many including the BJP had criticised it.

The first criticism is frivolous, since a good idea should be judged on its merit and not by the number of times it has been said before. This is not a race about who said what first! Besides, Modi did not just spout an idea. He went a step further and announced a substantial package for sanitation. Moreover, Ramesh himself listed Gujarat’s work in this sector in a Rajya Sabha address.

Secondly, Ramesh was not criticised for his idea, but for his manner of articulating it. The verbatim translation of his statement was “this journey is for building that thing, which is I think is even more pavitra (pure) than temples – it is a shauchalya (toilet)”. Then he went on about how our temples are among the filthiest places in the country. To be fair, Ramesh raised a valid point about temple hygiene, but his abrasiveness overshadowed the larger idea. Even his own party, the Congress, distanced itself from his remarks.

Modi on the other hand said “pehley shauchalay, phir devalaya” (first toilets, then places of worship). Thus, Ramesh pushed the toilet agenda by essentially dissing temples. Modi prioritised toilets over temples, without value judgement. It doesn’t take great genius to understand the difference between the two approaches, so I will leave it at that, and move to the more important issue at hand.

The importance of sanitation

A public discussion on toilets and sanitation may not be genteel. But it is about time that we addressed this critical issue. Let me start with some of my personal experiences in this regard, and you can write in with yours. As a child, my enduring memory of train journeys was about waking up to the view of glorious sunrise, and rows of bare human bottoms on fields. As an adult, car journeys were about meticulously chalking out periodic pit stops, where one could use the dubious facilities without throwing up. Despite the planning, many a times, the mustard fields ended up being a more hygienic option. Later, as a mother, all outings involved a recce of the nearest five star hotel, mall or decent restaurant, where one could take the babies for a diaper change.

Even as I write, I realise that my list of woes is the problem of the “privileged”. For many of my country women (and men), the very existence of toilets still continues to be a pipe dream. Half of the Indian homes do not have access to toilets. According to the 2011 Census, only 46.9 per cent of the total 246.6 million households have toilet facilities. Of the rest, 3.2 per cent use public toilets. And 49.8 per cent ease themselves in the open” . This state of affairs, in the 21st century, is a shameful tragedy.

Let me skim over just a few ramifications of this problem. Having to urinate or defecate in the open is dehumanising for any person. For women, in addition to the humiliation of leering eyes, there is a safety concern. This forces many to wait for nightfall and compromise on menstrual hygiene.

Sanitation also has a bearing on the education of women. Reports show that the school dropout rate for girls increases due to the lack of separate toilets. They often have to sneak out to nearby fields, or head back home to use the toilet. The problem is compounded once they reach puberty. 

Moving beyond the inconvenience and indignity, there are enough studies that show how open defecation spreads germs and causes E coli, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, pneumonia, intestinal parasites  and other illnesses. This is linked to the problems of human waste disposal (sewage management) and water contamination.

Even a rudimentary examination of the above-mentioned points indicates the scale of the problem at the basic level. The impact on international perception, economy, and tourism is a more evolved debate, for another time.


There is a general trend among a certain section to nitpick on and trivialise any issue that Modi highlights, almost as an auto-response. Even in this case, it appears that the objection is not to the fundamental idea of prioritising sanitation. The real objection is to the fact that Modi spoke about it. So instead of a mature debate on the magnitude of the problem, its fallout and possible solutions, the focus is on trivial ‘he said-she-said’ kind of things. Since this is the level of debate that seems to get people excited, let’s continue to talk about the non-essentials. But I do wonder, how long will Narendra Modi’s critics continue to cut their noses to spite their faces?

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions. Information, facts or opinions shared by the Author do not reflect the views of Niti Central and Niti Central is not responsible or liable for the same. The Author is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

Offstumped Report

  • Hari Haran

    Well written and articulated Smita.
    You also should have mentioned – how in these times of several Indian cities becoming Rape Capitals – women without toilet facilities and waiting for nightfall especially in Delhi and surrounding areas who have to use the fields, the Rapists are lurking in the shadows – targeting younger women / girls to satiate their carnal desires and sometimes even killing them.
    So toilets for such women in their immediate neighbourhoods if not at home would be a great boon.

  • Seth

    Well put! There is a great difference in the manners Mr Modi and Mr Ramesh articulated their points. No one in their right mind would call toilets more holier than places of worships. Some people might have gone overboard in attacking Mr Jairam Ramesh but his manner of articulation can be termed from insensitive to offensive.

    People don’t realize the Mr Modi has played a master stroke by trying to gently distance himself from hardliner right wing group of people at the appropriate time. We should not forget how this same group punished Atal/Advani duo in 2004 & 2009 for compromising on Article 370, UCC etc. A new government under Modi would have more pressing challenges than caring about these issues and it is only in the favour of BJP that such over-enthusiastic supporters be tamed and not even implicitly promised things that could result in situations like 2004 & 2009.

    An agenda of inclusive development combined with delivery in first term can ensure successive terms for BJP. Making promises that it won’t be able to deliver in first term would again open entry routes for a UPA government under Rahul Gandhi in 2019.

  • maidros

    Dear author,
    The problem is not so much about the importance of sanitation, as the fact that there was [b]simply no need to bring in temples[/b] into the debate regarding toilets. You, like many other supporters of Modi, are seeking to impose a false dichotomy here. Why do toilets and temples belong in the same sentence? How many temples do you know that are stopping the construction of toilets? As for the government itself – correct me if I am wrong – it is not in the business of building temples, while it is the duty of the government to build toilets. Exactly why then do we need to conjoin temples and toilets, particularly when a man is running for the highest public office?

    I sincerely hope that it was a throwaway remark by Modi, and at least, he does not connect the two to insinuate that it is the building of temples that are hindering the construction of toilets.

    • Observer

      You got it wrong, sir. Modi said that he was generally identified as a Hindu first. In order to allay this misconception, he went on to say ‘Toilets first and Temples next’ clarifying what his priorities were. When mentioning his identity he cannot help mentioning the temple which would have been hypocritic otherwise. True to his words, he has not hesitated to demolish temples that have come in the way of improving infrastructure in Gujarat. When congress and allies survive on Babri Masjid, your objection to Modi’s temple reference is malicious.

      • sekar

        It would have been suffice had he stopped with the sentence on toilets. Leaving the remaining unsaid would have been more appropriate.

  • B Prasad

    The relevance of sanitation utilities is a given.

    The controversy around Jairam’s remarks was his needless attack on Hindu sentiments (a very Nehruvian trait). To juxtapose this in secular terms, consider the statement by replacing the word “mandir” with “masjid” …

    “A toilet is more sacred than a masjid. Our masjids are amongst the filthiest places in the country.”

    Now wouldn’t this get NDTV & IBN’s attention?

    • maidros

      Your comment, if indeed it is the opinion of Modi, fills me with more foreboding. Why does Modi need to allay anyone’s fear of his being a Hindu? Is Hinduphobia so fashionable in the Lutyens or is it that the Hindus are scaring our `secular government’. Being a Hindu is a matter of pride, not one of concern, and there is absolutely no reason to allay anyone’s fears on the matter.

      Secondly, temples are built by private individuals, who have nothing to do with the government. When did temples demand government resources that should have been used for building toilets? It is the governments’ job to provide the associated infrastructure for toilets, most of which are woefully absent in most states, including Gujarat. Given the fact that the government is not even in the business of building temples, and has failed signally in building toilets and their associated infrastructure, it is fallacious to pretend that temples have anything to do with toilets (or lack thereof). Simply put, sir, temples and toilets do not belong in the same sentence.

      Finally, Modi’s need to appease the secularists in Delhi worries me. If, right at the beginning of his Delhi sojourn, he feels the need to appease that unappeasable crowd and bring temples into a question involving sanitation, then it is perhaps time for Modi to step back and re-evaluate the situation. He should not take the Hindu support for granted. If he does, he will be another fallen idol, one of the several wannabes, whose bones litter the political minefields of Delhi. I guess my feelings on the matter can be best summarised by the immortal words of Bihari Lal

      नहिं पराग नहिं मधुर मधु नहिं विकास यहि काल
      अली कली ही सौ बंध्यो आगे कौन हवाल ।।

      • maidros

        Sigh – my comment was meant for observer, not for B Prasad. Seems to be a mistake.

      • Observer

        I accept you have a valid point there. When identifying priorities, one need not shed his identity. But I still feel what Modi did was right, to assure the fence sitters. Political address in India cannot be sterile because the target audience are not mature enough to be objective. In order to save India from pseudo secularists, we must allow Modi to go a little astray.

        Well, I respect your views still. I request you to give the english translation of the hindi text given by you (I understand Hindi a little but cannot read it!)

        • maidros

          The verse is a metaphor. Basically, the verse means that if things are this bad in the beginning, what will be their state a bit later.

  • Ganapathi S

    Modi has to talk about federalism. This will get him some regional allies.

    Being a Chief Minister of a state that was ignore by UPA for political reasons, he should have a better understanding of how things will change if states are empowered.

    • Observer

      Modi’s reference to a federal India is what has alienated him from BJP’s erstwhile allies. Political parties in India declare openly that the idea of ‘One India’ or ‘India First’ are obnoxious enough to drive moslem votes away!

      True that moslems also do not need certificate from anyone as to their patriotism or personal integrity. But their indifferent silence,when a pronounced voice matters, is only abetting pseudo secularists!

  • Ganapathi S

    Modi Needs to understand that media and UPA are going to dissect and spin his comments.

    I did watch the video and felt that he tripped. He needs to be careful. IMHO, his comments cannot be defended.

  • R Prasad

    Fully back Smita’s statement: “The first criticism is frivolous, since a good idea should be judged on its merit and not by the number of times it has been said before.”

    Any good is better repreated by as many people and as many celebrities and popular leaders. Or why else the celebrities endorsing the same old idea of Blood Donation, Eye Donation or Organ Donation on TVs?

  • Shrikanth

    To a spiritual being , Both are similar , one u need to clean the body , another u need to clean the mind . To understand this u should traveled a lengthy spiritual path .

  • Murthy

    As most of the bloggers above have said, why this comparison? What is the point of comparing these two items – building temples and / or toilets?

    Do we know if Hindus contributing Rs.50/- or Rs.5,00,000 to a Mandhir Building Fund do not have toilets at home?

    As Sri Ganapathy says, I too feel, Sri NaMo tripped on this one. He needs to be careful, because the entire MSM is waiting to pillory him at every chance.

    I would like to show through my analysis below that the comparison is POINTLESS.

    a) Are we talking of toilets in houses (private) or toilets in public places meant for travelers – the author seems to be talking of these.

    b) If it is PUBLIC TOILET FACILITIES, then is it the responsibility of Hindus donating to a Mandhir Fund to DIVERT their monies to building toilets in public areas? Can they build in public places without the consent of the Municipality or the state authorities? Even if they can WHY SHOULD THEY? ISN’T IT THE GOVERNMENT’S JOB?


    c) If it is PRIVATE TOILET FACILITIES, then a Hindu Family contributing Rs.50 to a Mandhir Fund, can it build a toilet for Rs.50?

    Hindus contributing Rs.5,000 or more to a Mandhir Fund, can be considered affluent. They will have a private toilet in their houses.

    If they do not have but are in the habit of contributing to Mandhir Funds, then they may be criticised by JR Ramesh and Sri NaMo – they may well have one or two answers to those criticisms. Such Hindus must be very small in number. If so, what is the point of big leaders getting involved in such grand condemnation of them?

    d) Are our leaders MISTAKEN in their criticism of Hindus who do not have PRIVATE TOILETS when they, the leaders, have FAILED TO PROVIDE PUBLIC TOILETS OF SUFFICIENT STANDARD – so failed almost throughout the country.


  • A. D. Shah

    The whole nation seems to be worked up on an innocuous statement. Haven’t we frequently read about Gandhiji having spoken of ‘cleanliness above Godliness’?
    When translated, the word ‘shauchalaya’ can simply mean ‘a place where you clean up’. If so, sanitation is very much in the scope of Government duties.
    Digvijay Singh and Jairam Ramesh seem to have lost it when they are directly linking the Ramjanma Bhoomi site to the construction of the ‘so-called’ toilets. Pathetic can only begin to describe their thinking. Resurrecting the bogey of Kanshiram was a clever ploy to drag the SC/ST angle into the whole cacophony. God alone can save them, it appears – the Indian voter certainly cannot.

  • Prem Rou

    I agree with maidros
    The comment of both Sri J Ramesh and Sri Modi , as part of a secular government , are uncalled for and condemnable. It is the duty of government to make public toilets (sauchalaya) but devalaya is not . Then how and why [to show the priority of government] one can bring devalaya in picture. Can anybody list instances where building of toilet was stopped as fund is diverted to building devalaya ?

    As a BJP leader he could have used “pehele sauchalya phir muft bhojanalaya” taking a potshot over FSB and priority of Congress(I).

  • senthil

    The author is wrong in all counts..

    First, how do you say “Toilets are Hygiene”? IT has been proved now, that it is the toilets, where the germs thrive the most.. Toilet is very very dirty thing, and has been completely shunned by our dharmic civilization.. The very idea of using the same toilet which others used is nauseating..

    There is more dirtiness in toilet rather than hygiene.. and in today’s urbanisation, people are packed within small plot of one bedroom or two bedroom houses, and their toilets exist just near to their kitchen..

    At social level, the water flushed out of toilet is stored in septic tank, where it becomes poison, as it stays there for years.. and such poisonous water is drained in to the nearby rivers and ponds, which is much more polluting that what open defecation is supposed to do.. is this called sanitation?

    Today, we are seeing how big cities are polluting our holy rivers in large scales.. the rivers ganga and yamuna are now virtually converted in to sewages..

    Also, septic tanks are the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, and septic tanks are the largest contributor

    The urban uprooted indians are living in their own make-belief world created by western capitalists.. pls come out of that..

    • Murthy

      Sri Senthil,

      I agree with you that regular toilets – whether the Indian or Western type – can spread diseases if not properly maintained – Indian style is less risky as compared to the Western (chair) type!! At airports all over the world, my friends and I inspect several toilets – even at Singapore’s Changi airport – before choosing one.
      Not to put too fine a point on this matter, to be frank, we spread toilet paper on the wooden seat before commencing our ‘business’.

      Now, as a child, I grew up in a rural part of Tamil Nadu. I was taught to use the ‘fields’ but at a place where the scorching SUN will dry everything within 8 hours or so. NO CHANCE OF ANY SPREAD OF ANY DISEASES EVER, because I was also taught to wash myself thoroughly before even touching my own body.

      I now spend time in the West, where, although toilet facilities are excellent, not everyone who uses toilets will wash there hands. I have seen well dressed men leave after no.1 (sometimes, perhaps, after no.2) without washing their hands thoroughly.

      Therefore, despite appearances, in India E-Coli infection rate is rather less than in the West!!!! However, other bacteria that cause temporary dihorreah are also cause trouble in India because of unwashed clothes used in the kitchens of many hotels – not directly linked to toilets.

      I admit that in my native village in Tamil Nadu, it is not easy any longer to enjoy the ‘open air performance’, because of the increased population and lack of privacy thereof.

      So, we do need toilets to be built!!

      NB: Even in those days, only men enjoyed this open air facility, ladies avoided it mostly. ‘Long drop’ latrines were available at farm houses, while at terrace houses, it was, sadly, ‘dry’ latrine, which had to be cleaned by a specific group of people – Not at all acceptable any longer.

      • Darshak

        Unsurprisingly the two posts have received a thumbs down. For a western educated (western curriculum)/oriented generation it is very hard to look outside the box and objectively at whats being said. In most cases than not this would turn into a shouting match with the usual cop out that research has proven.

        As mentioned, the author has taken the high road about the importance of toilets… I have traveled the world or some of it and find it amusing when toilets are given so much prime importance. Even in the western world a travel itinerary includes mapping out pit stops.. especially on less traveled roads.

        However in the current context, NaMo’s setting some priorities right are a welcome step, if BJP/NaMo expect a long term stay at the parliament they need long term support from this western oriented generation. At the same time he has subtly indicated that temple construction will not be on the back burner.. which does not mean that its the govts job to build, but it certainly is to create the atmosphere and support for it. A Yatra is something that should be encouraged not stopped. but that can follow down the road. its about priorities.. I want better and more temples but I also want a long term govt that I am willing to support long term

  • senthil

    The clubbing of toilets and temples undermine the core beliefs of our society.. what modi says that human comfort is supreme, rather than god.. whereas our civilizational ethos conveys that the poojas to the temple is supreme than the human comfort..

    Our people, right from poor to the rich, contribute whatever they have to the temples.. the BJP’s & Modi’s westernised development agenda advocates that it is our luxury and comfort that is important..

    Perhaps, thats the reason, Modi demolished more than 4000 temples in gandhinagar alone..

  • sohan

    Toilets are essential. The public through their representatives in the civic bodies of every village, town, and city should pitch in to build toilets. people are the government. Making toilets a political issue shows lack of responsibility on their part.

    Remarks such as toilet first, mandir next are spoken figuratively. Indian politicians would do well if they recruit good and sensible speech writers to vet their speeches. words spoken absent mindedly could cause misunderstanding. They may end up killing the messenger.

  • M Patel

    A freedom issue (i.e. religious or political) cannot be compared with a Developmental issue. Ideally, One should not come at cost of other. In 1945, Can someone say ‘First toilets, then parliament building’.

    Freedom movement cannot be reduced as mere Parliament building. Similary, Ayodhya movement should not be reduced to mere building of a temple. It is about freedom of belief.

    • Murthy

      Very well put – especially, your point on the Ayodhya Movement.

      I feel that if JaiRam Ramesh had said, “Toilets first, then only the Mars Mission (by ISRO)”, or “Toilets first, then only purchase of fancy cars for the Ministers”, or “Toilets first then only Rs.400 Crores of HAJ SUBSIDIES”, those statements would have made some sense.

      BUT he, like almost all congress leaders, has no courage, because courage comes with conviction.

      NB: I wrote to agree with you on the Sikhs, if we look at the wider picture of terrorism by the Khalisthani supporters, victimising innocent Hindus.

  • Bitsy

    I don’t see anything wrong in his comment. His remark was in particular for the females…Our religion itself respects females…then where is the problem?

  • Radha Rajan

    In response to Shri M Patel, yes Gandhi did indeed say to Rajaji in the 1930s decade that we were not ready for freedom and we need to address several spcial issues before we would be ready; to which fact Rajaji disagrred vehemently. Auribindo of course in his brilliant writings between 1893 and 1907 observed there can be no meaningul and fruitful national activity as long as we are enslaved. Auribiondo differed entirely with Gandhi when he remarked political freedom must precede everything else. Coming back to this toilet before temple, I remember the communists and NGO activists saying the same thing when Vajpayeee’s government condiucted Pokhran II. Let us acceot Modi erred and erred badly in linking toilets with temples. Of course Muslims and Christians are not going to wait until we are done building toilets. Chirches and mosques will contin ue to proliferate as Hindus put all temple building on hold and wait to finish building toilets.

  • San

    Very well written and to the point
    It time now to lunch Niticentral tv channel

  • Kannan

    India has always had glorious temples and more glorious ones will be built in due course of time. What Modiji is saying here is another facet of his vision for India: education, healthcare, economic growth. Without the basics in place, no progress worth its name can be achieved.

    One has to ask: After sixty years of independence, why are these basics not still in place ? Why do we have abysmal records in education, healthcare, sanitation, transportation and all these matters that affect our daily lives ? It is because we have followed an economic model that breeds corruption, keeps the people of this country poor, kills enterprise and drains the life blood of the nation.

  • sekar

    First, am also a supporter of Modiji. But surely, he made a faux pas when he compared toilets and temples. The analogy actually refers to the importance of development to other priorities of the party, BJP. NO doubt, like Congress Jai ram Ramesh, crude comparison could have been avoided. But all are humans to err esp.when speaking, for only after we speak we actually understand its meaning. Human fallibility, of course! This will take away the personality of Modiji. Better luckand wishes.



  • CA Srinivasan Anand

    This “Priority between Toilets and Temples” is a fallacy. Question of priority between two things arises only if you are required to do both the things.

    Have Governments in India failed to built enough public toilets because they have been building temples since 1947? Are Governments required to build temples? Are Governments supposed to build temples? If the answer to all these is “No”, then the debate of priorities between T&T is over even before it has started. On the contrary, Governments are controlling temples through HRCE Acts and looting them. This is in addition to taxes which Government raises. Even after looting temples, Govt has failed to provide public sanitation since 1947.
    I admire Narendra Modi and is very happy that for the first time since 1947, we will have a PM with solid track record as CM. But fallacy/bad argument is just that even if it comes from Modi whom I revere. Chamchagiri is not my forte. I call a spade a spade.