Of the many foolish statements made in the past weeks by organisers of the Commonwealth Games, none was sillier than secretary general Lalit Bhanot's claim that, if some delegates were finding conditions in the Games Village intolerable, it was because "their standards of hygiene differ from us (sic)". Attributing the complaints to "cultural differences", Bhanot explained, "Everyone has different standards about cleanliness. The Westerners have different standards, we have different standards."
Bhanot's words, entirely deserving of the ridicule heaped on them, were a novel twist to the philosophy of multiculturalism (MC). MC holds that different societies have varying value systems, each of which deserves respect.
MC ideology was big in the 1990s. In North America, the metaphor of the melting pot was replaced by that of the salad bowl and the mosaic. In Southeast Asia, Lee Kwan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad argued for political systems based on Asian values, specifically a preference for social harmony over western individualistic liberalism. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, a counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the Universal Declaration guaranteed free expression, the Islamic version stated, "Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith."
Perhaps the first MC argument relating to hygiene in India was Madhu Kishwar's attack on the adoption of western style toilets in Indian homes. Writing in the magazine Manushi, Kishwar called WCs 'symbols of mental slavery'. She suggested manure-producing septic tanks were preferable to elaborate sewer systems: "The flush toilet (water closet) as a system of fecal and other waste disposal which is linked to large drains which are then emptied out into rivers... is perhaps one of the most ecologically destructive of all the "advances" made by the west; it leads to the willful pollution and poisoning of the earth's water resources."
While the polemic made a number of valid points, it glossed over the fact that India's traditional systems of waste disposal do a pretty terrible job. Open defecation, practiced for centuries by a majority of India's villagers, commonly leads to diarrhoea, a major cause of deaths among children. Kishwar also failed to recognise that there's nothing particularly western about sewers. Not long ago, cities in the industrialised world faced regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Better plumbing, waste disposal, and water purification led to the gradual elimination of diseases caused by impure water and fecal contamination.
Sewage disposal technology ought to be treated on par with advances in motoring or computing, rather than as something bounded by culture. If, today, poor sanitation and hygiene accounts for 9% of all deaths in India, it is not because we have sought to ape western modes instead of concentrating on local solutions, but simply because we have failed to supply clean water to citizens, failed to construct and maintain enough toilets, drains and sewage treatment facilities.
Kishwar's essay made only passing mention of the subcontinent's indigenous tradition of advanced drainage, exemplified by cities of the Indus Valley. Yet, that is what our earliest civilisation is best known for. Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and Dholavira have yielded no breathtaking monuments or colossal sculptures on par with what the ancient Egyptians produced; no epic poetry or extended chronicles of the sort created in Mesopotamia; no great treasure or funerary decorations; nothing that would place the Indus Valley civilisation on par with other major cultures of the time. Nothing, that is, except its carefully designed streets and homes; and its elaborate water supply and waste disposal systems.
How is it that we were better at urban infrastructure 4000 years ago than we are today? How is it that many walls of Harappan cities still stand while bridges we build today collapse before completion? Why is our sanitation so awful that it is invariably a focus of attention of any foreigner visiting the country? How did the pool of excrement in Slumdog Millionaire replace the geometric, waterproof, brick-lined gutters of Mohenjo-daro?
It's well known that Harappan cities flourished for about seven hundred years, from around 2600 BC to 1900 BC, before rapidly declining. The causes for the fall are uncertain. An early suggestion of foreign invasion has been repudiated, and most explanations now involve a combination of changing rainfall patterns, shifting rivers, a breakdown of trade routes, and a decay of political authority. In the last decades, homes in Indus Valley cities grew flimsier, the streets less orderly; Drainage systems ceased to be adequately maintained. Mohenjo-daro may well have provided a putrid, disease-ridden environment in its final phase.
After the end of the civilisation, we have no urban life to speak of for centuries, and when a new urbanism emerges, focussed more in the east, it is a very different animal. There's no careful planning any more, no clean grids, no drains collecting waste from each house. Instead, people make arrangements for themselves, vertical disposals rather than horizontal ones. These have to be cleaned regularly, and now there's a community dedicated to the task. The new system proves more stable and long lasting than the Indus Valley culture. It is stringently hierarchical, and the lowest of the low are considered impure in their very essence. What happens to these people, the lowest castes, those who take out the waste, how they live and die, is of no consequence, as long as they do not overstep the boundaries marked for them.
This culture leads directly to the Games Village fiasco. The village has been built by workers paid less than the minimum wage and housed in shocking conditions by rapacious firms making hundreds of crores in profits. If these workers take to using the toilets in Games Village apartments, it's because even leaking or blocked toilets in those apartments are preferable to the only option they have, which is choked toilets next to their shanties.
I admit the leap from ancient India to contemporary Delhi is a case of overreaching. I will flesh out the idea when possible in future columns. My central point is this: Indus Valley cities were built upon the idea of a singular urban community. There were rich and poor, high and low, sure, but the towns' planning demonstrates that citizens were all considered part of one entity, one society. This idea was destroyed by the new system founded on caste, which emerged in the first millennium BC, and simply had no space for any notion of the general good. Gutters are a perfect exemplar of such a notion. Drains must carefully slope at an appropriate angle from beginning to end as they pass dozens of homes in their twisting path; there's no room for individual intervention in this mathematics. The kind of planning required for a city-wide drainage system reflects an abstract idea of the general good, which disappeared from India's towns following the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation, and never quite returned.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.