Sanitation begins with sanity. Let the toilets wait

Sopan Joshi
Grist Media

India has several reasons to make good toilets. Most have to do with women.

When water sources are polluted, say, with untreated sewage, who has no option but to walk long distances in villages to get drinking water? In pictures of people waiting for water tankers or for the municipal taps to yield, how many men do you see?

An estimated 1.5 million children die each year from diseases caused by oral contact with pathogens found in excreta. On an average, such diseases stunt the growth of 45 out of 100 children in India. Most infections don’t kill; when children fall ill due to diarrhoeal diseases, who do you think has to stay up and nurse them, if not their mothers?

Who is hit the hardest by forced migration when livelihoods like agriculture and weaving turn unproductive in villages, or when progress displaces people who have nowhere to go? Brick kilns are infamous for abuse of labourers; women working in them routinely face terrible violence, and this is common knowledge in India as well as Pakistan. Migrant workers have no recourse. Across the world, women face the greatest dangers when they are forced to migrate for work, be it for industrial employment or farm labour.

And so it is with the daily task of defecating without a toilet. It is a far greater ordeal for women since, unlike men, they usually have to go out to the fields in the dark before dawn or after dusk. This makes them more vulnerable to sexual predators. Last month, two teenagers in a Badaun village in Uttar Pradesh were raped and found hanging from a tree the morning after they had gone out to relieve themselves in the fields. Those accused of the attack were from the powerful Yadav caste, and local policemen—from the same caste—protected them instead of helping the families of the victims. Yet, as the horror of that photograph of the two hung girls spread across the country, it became a story about how a lack of a toilet had been the reason for this brutality.

Here is one way to read this: We cannot stop instances of men sexually assaulting women who step out of their houses at night; so let’s give them toilets so that they stay indoors. This smacks of denial. Women and men should have access to effective toilets for their basic dignity and sanitation. But to say that toilets will help to protect women from such violence is also to say that they should not venture out of their homes for any other reason either since it is unsafe. Leave alone the hope for a time when women do not have to face such menace. For now, it is difficult (though essential) to say: the Badaun murders and rapes are not about sanitation or toilets; they are about how families and communities raise men, and how those men treat women.

A matter of violence against a weaker caste and women has, instead, became a story about infrastructure. Which amounts to the same as saying that the 2012 December 16 Delhi gang rape was actually a public transport issue. Or that the crime could have been prevented if the victim had only stayed at home, or only had a private car. Our cities desperately need affordable public transport, more so for women than men. But will that stop violence against women? Are toilets the answer to caste violence? Isn’t that another mode of denial? Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s words of denial are still ringing: boys will be boys, they make mistakes.

The families of the Badaun teenagers have demanded justice. Have you read any reports of them demanding toilets? When a weaker caste faces menace and violence from a powerful caste, it doesn’t show a lack of sanitary infrastructure. It shows a lack of sanity. And it shows that social and political leaders are feeding off the divisions; they do not have an adequate interest in improving the terms on which castes and communities interact with each other. They do not have an interest in enabling women to have dignity and safety.

Since the most powerful must get the greatest blame, UP’s chief minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav should be held accountable. Apart from atrocious statements he and his father have issued about the safety of women, they are accused of making the state police force a stronghold of the Yadav caste which has traditionally supported the SP. There are widespread accusations that the police force is split along caste lines, and this split has been encouraged and used for patronage. In the Badaun case, constable Sarvesh Yadav refused to act to protect his friend and main accused Pappu Yadav.

In the times of the media

Whatever else, the Badaun tragedy should not be made into a rallying cry to build toilets. No matter how noble a cause it is to build toilets for those who need them desperately, the murder and rape of two teenagers by members of a powerful caste is not the occasion for that message.

That the mass media has a scavenging streak is an old story. Social activists now regard the media as a crucial ally for their work. In response, some journalists strive to give a development twist to news reports. In fact, several journalists say this is the only way they have to talk about social issues. How else will subjects like sanitation and public transport get some political focus? Which is why so many sanitation campaigns focus on the media, which in turn influences government policy. This means social activism, the media and the government are constantly looking at each other—and not enough at the world outside this charmed circle.

This is not a good way to promote sanitation. To make a report relevant to a wider readership, each reporter has to essentialise it—reduce it to a catch-phrase or an omnibus message. There is not much room left for complexity there.

A big example of social marketing is the success of the Polio Eradication Programme, which has become something of a benchmark for how a social project can use the media. It came with brand ambassadors like the Polio Eradication Champion Amitabh Bachchan. Taking nothing away from this colossal effort to eradicate a crippling disease, there are problems in accepting this as a model for a subject like sanitation.

While eradicating polio is about administering a vaccine to all infants—those two life-saving drops—sanitation is among the most complex aspects of human existence. There is scarcely an arena of human life that it doesn’t touch.

The trouble with sanitation

Among other things, sanitation in India has to do with raw sewage polluting sacred rivers like the Ganga and the not-so-sacred ones too. India’s water bodies are severely polluted with untreated sewage, although less than half of its population has toilets, and an even smaller proportion of that is connected to sewerage. If everybody had toilets connected to the sewer system, can you imagine what would happen to our water bodies and fresh water supply?

Yet, right now a sewer system is the only large-scale answer to free several castes trapped in the practice of manual scavenging. India doesn’t even know how many people still have to lift excreta from public and private toilets and cart it away—effectively a kind of slavery. Estimates vary from seven lakh to 13 lakh people engaged in the manual removal of human excreta. Parliament has passed laws banning manual scavenging, and yet it continues. Even the Indian Railways cannot function without armies of manual scavengers to clean its tracks of excreta.

Sanitation has to do with depleting soil fertility, because soil nutrients that come to us as food are put into water bodies by the sewage system instead of going back into soil as per the natural nutrient cycle (urine has plenty of phosphorus, an expensive fertiliser, as also nitrogen). One way to gauge the value of soil nutrients lost in urine and excreta is to consider India’s fertiliser subsidy, currently hovering around Rs 65,000 crore. Nutrients with such worth are flushed down with excreta to pollute water bodies.

Sanitation has as much to do with making affordable sanitary napkins for menstrual hygiene, as it does with the spread of some of the deadliest diseases like cholera. And it has to do with the abuse of medicines to treat diseases, resulting in such high rates of antibiotic resistance that scientists are talking about the post-antibiotic era. Sewers and sewage treatment systems are, like hospitals, the ideal sites for breeding superbugs. Weak doses of antibiotics, urinated out of the body, come in contact with pathogens from excreta.

Such a complex subject does not lend itself to catch-phrases and clever headlines. When such summaries are attempted to spread the good word on sanitation, the consequences are not always as intended.

Take the example of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), a method to make people realise the dirtiness of their practices by ‘triggering’ disgust among them. Kamal Kar, an agriculture scientist, first tried this out in Bangladesh in 1999. Since then, several development professionals have hailed it as the most powerful way to achieve total sanitation.

CLTS has indeed produced some striking results, which have been widely publicised. But there is a darker, coercive side to this approach that is seldom discussed. One of the few people who have talked about it openly is Liz Chatterjee, an academic with an interest in development who in 2011 wrote an account for The Guardian based on a tour of villages in Karnataka. She describes the fallout of triggering disgust among people about insanitary practices – this disgust can take the shape of coercive methods against other people, even menace.

Squads threw stones at people defecating. Women were photographed and their pictures displayed publicly. The local government institution, the gram panchayat, threatened to cut off households' water and electricity supplies until their owners had signed contracts promising to build latrines. A handful of very poor people reported that a toilet had been hastily constructed in their yards without their consent,” Chatterjee writes in her account. “A local official proudly testified to the extremes of the coercion. He had personally locked up houses when people were out defecating, forcing them to come to his office and sign a contract to build a toilet before he would give them the keys. Another time, he had collected a woman's faeces and dumped them on her kitchen table.”

This doesn’t mean CLTS is evil and should be discarded. But there ought to be a more open discussion around it. Yet, if you attend the meetings of the UN body in charge of monitoring sanitation – the ponderously named Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) – people discuss the most powerful and effective ways to ‘trigger shame’ like it’s standard operating procedure. In meetings and discussions where development professionals can discard the politically correct terminology, ‘subjects’ appear like guinea pigs.

Surveys show that in several villages that have received the Nirmal Gram Puraskar for eradicating open defecation, a significant proportion of residents have reverted to open defecation. In travels through villages, it is not uncommon to see toilets built under the Nirmal Gram Yojana being used as storehouses. Or toilets that cannot be used because the water supply is poor. Or toilets, with leach-pits for excreta to soak into the ground, built right next to a hand pump used to draw drinking water.

Merely building toilets will not solve our sanitation problems. The solutions have to come locally. There are several initiatives, some from social organisations and some even from the government, that have made good toilets that provide dignity and safety to users, do not pollute water sources, and do not require a budget from the Planning Commission to maintain them.

They will get discussed among more people only when sanitation is addressed for what it is—much more than building toilets. And never will sanitary practices prevent men from sexually assaulting women, or stop powerful castes from mistreating weaker castes.

There are many occasions to talk about sanitation. The murder and rape of two teenagers in Badaun is not one of them. On this account, it has to be squarely a matter of the rule of law. The Uttar Pradesh government has to be held accountable for such crimes. This is a time to talk about how men (mis)treat women. Toilets can wait.

A reporter and editor for 17 years, Sopan Joshi is a freelance journalist in Delhi and writes in Hindi and English. A Research Fellow at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, he is the author of a forthcoming book on sanitation. His recent work is available at