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.
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?