It’s official: the other WTO has pronounced India an open-air defecation superpower.
“These rooms are clean to both you and us. The delegates want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may differ from our perception. What is good for us may not be good for them. See, everyone has a different standard of cleanliness.”
THE FIRST person who every Indian should have thought of on 19 November, World Toilet Day, is Lalit Bhanot. His off-the-cuff remark outraged the nation, but was greeted with gratitude by water and sanitation activists who have been trying to raise awareness of their pet issues for the past decade. Last year, we had ‘The Big Squat’ on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. This year, we have the ‘Flush Tracker’ (flushtracker.com), which does exactly what its name suggests. Starting with a few countries (not India, for reasons that might become clear as you keep reading), the website delivers emails informing the curious of how far and fast their last flush travelled. Cool, but its appeal appears to be limited.
The response to Bhanot’s low-tech foray into the world of sanitation was, by contrast, electrifying perhaps because it was so embarrassing. Foreign publications such as The New York Times couldn’t keep themselves from sounding smug, and serious academics pontificated about the distinction between public squalor and impeccable sanitation in the private sphere. More oddly, the otherwise unflappable Salman Rushdie, who in the past has had to speak out about more serious issues, was so disturbed that he suggested Bhanot be “spanked very severely”.
But poor Lalit Bhanot, who is being rightly called to account for many things nowadays, was in this specific instance merely stating the obvious. India tops the list of countries with the world’s worst sanitation, accounting for more than half the world’s total of 1.1 billion people who defecate in the open. Our leadership in the domain of poor sanitation is assured for some time to come, as the second-worst nation, Indonesia, has a mere 58 million people who defecate openly. China, the world’s most populous nation, grabs third place among countries with the worst toilet facilities, with 50 million such people. “While Indians were embarrassed by the state of the Commonwealth Games toilets, they should pay attention to the huge toilet problems in the whole country itself,” says Jack Sim, the Singaporean businessman who founded the World Toilet Organization—‘The other WTO’—on 19 November 2001.
As many as 638 million Indians answer the call of nature armed only with a lota, according to latest data from the World Health Organization and Unicef. With so many people defecating in the open, it’s not hard to find people like Chandu, a driver in Mumbai who says he prefers going to the beach so that he and his friends can chat while they take their collective dumps. A subsequent trip to the beach for anyone else is an invitation to dabble in raw sewage of the human kind.
Chandu, of course, has no choice. In fact, for anyone who defecates in the open, it is a humiliating experience. Women whose homes lack toilet facilities must often wait till dark and walk far from their homes, making nature’s call an unpleasant and sometimes dangerous affair. The average person uses the toilet some six times a day, and the long gaps imposed by inadequate facilities raise the risk of urinary disease even in adults. Children are the worst affected. Open defecation means that faecal matter contaminates water supplies, causing diseases which in children often result in diarrhoea, which can quickly lead to fatal dehydration. One in five of the 1.9 million children who die in India every year, estimates Unicef, die of diarrhoea-related illnesses.
“Much of India’s surface water is contaminated by faecal discharge, and together with open defecation, lack of toilets and hygiene spreads disease. You carry this burden of morbidity and mortality, and this slows down your growth as a country,” says Sim, whose crusading interest in sanitation has earned him a nickname he carries with glee—Toilet Man (facebook.com/jacksimwto).
India has its own toilet crusader in Bindeshwar Pathak, who founded the Sulabh movement that has built 1.2 million toilets and 5,500 community public toilet complexes. Earlier this year, Pathak said he plans to open Sulabh Sanitation Centres in 50 countries over the next five years. The movement has also helped tackle another humiliating aspect of poor sanitation in India, by liberating an estimated 50,000 scavengers from the onerous job of having to clean and carry human excrement.
But Sim is a crusader with a difference. Having grown up in a slum, he went on to start his own business at the age of 24, and made his money in real estate and construction. In 1998, he started the Restroom Association of Singapore, which helped transform Singapore’s bathrooms from ‘unpredictable’ to world-class. When I spoke to him just before World Toilet Day, he was struck by the fact that Indians were willing to buy mobile phones rather than build toilets. “We have to make toilets sexy like cellphones. Last year, India had 20 million new cellphones, mostly bought by the poor. They have money, so toilets can be a big business,” he said, explaining that his organisation can build a treatment and sanitation system for only $30. Scrupulous to a fault, he added: “The shelter, they would have to build.”
According to Sim, one of the ways to convince people is to turn toilets into an emotional aspiration, which is what makes cellphones fly off shelves. “Its marketing is not done in an aspirational manner,” he says, of toilets. “If you do it like health, it is not interesting. You have to make it pretty—in different colours.” He also recommends using other market methods to make people buy toilets. Generating genuine demand would give sanitation an edge of sustainability that giving away toilets will never do. A conference earlier this month took up the issue of capitalising on the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’, a market of some 1.8 billion people who have purchasing power but lack proper sanitation. Meanwhile, the World Toilet Organization is starting a franchise chain to distribute low cost toilets and sanitation systems.
Then again, Sim may just be a hopeless dreamer. When I asked him what he made of Bhanot’s sanitation gaffe, he said it was the official’s responsibility to cater to international expectations, and then added: “Perhaps Mr Bhanot can redeem himself by becoming a toilet champion, promoting higher standards of toilet cleanliness all over India.”