India’s Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh, speaks for a nation of Gandhian imagination when he says that India needs more toilets than temples — even if he offends the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena with the remark. Distressed by the filth that surrounded even the ministerial buildings in New Delhi, the Mahatma once wrote: “If we keep our backyards unclean, our swaraj (independence) will have a foul stench.”
The census of 2011 now reports that nearly half of the Indian population defecates in the open because more than half of Indian households do not have toilets. What is even more humiliating is that about 800,000 households get India’s poorest to remove their ‘night soil’, as human shit is quaintly termed in government vocabulary. The BJP and its religiously affiliated organisations should have seen this as the greater offence to both man and their deities.
Under the title, “Our Dirty Ways”, Gandhi wrote in Navajivan in September 1925: “Both excretory functions should be performed only at fixed places … To pass urine anywhere in a street, at any place not meant for the purpose should be regarded an offence … Our lavatories bring our civilisation into discredit; they violate the rules of hygiene”. Jairam Ramesh echoes this line when he says, “nearly 60 per cent of the people in the world who defecate in the open, belong to India. We should be ashamed of this.”
Ramesh, 58, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, with a master’s of science in public policy and public management from Carnegie Mellon, is a known admirer of Gandhi. His Nirmal Bharat Yatra aims to make India free of open defecation in the next five years. The two-month campaign began at Sewagram Ashram, Wardha, where Gandhi lived for a while, and will end in Champaran, where he had launched his struggle for independence.
What makes so many people of the subcontinent immune to shame when they defecate in the open? Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who served in India and Burma during the Second World War, gets his character to say in The Dark Light Years: “To our way of thought … civilisation is reckoned as the distance man has placed between himself and his excreta.” That could be a telling comment on a nation with more mobile phones than toilets. But Gandhi believed that it was rooted in the concept of ‘untouchability’, in which some humans see others as less clean than their own wastes, where they are willing to wallow in their own shit than share space, food and water with their fellowmen. He wrote: “Corporate (civic) cleanliness can only be ensured if there is a corporate conscience and a corporate insistence on cleanliness in public places. Untouchability has a great deal to answer for the insanitation of our streets and our latrines, whether private or public.”
It is tempting to believe that part of the answer is in education and the empowerment of women. In the southern state of Kerala, which is the most literate in India, its educated women can, perhaps, stake a greater claim to their dignity. Less than four per cent of the population in the state lacks access to toilets. In contrast, more than 70 per cent of households in the low-literacy states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh defecate in the open.
And, for those who wish to take offence with the minister on religious grounds, here’s one more from the Mahatma: “Anyone who fouls the air by spitting about carelessly, throwing refuse and rubbish, or otherwise dirtying the ground, sins against man and nature. Man’s body is the temple of God. Anyone who fouls the air that is to enter that temple desecrates it.” Ramesh — who very recently ruffled some with the crack that “the Indian Railway is really the world’s biggest open toilet” — is a man with a mission. He has talked passionately about the appalling practice of manual scavenging and followed it up with a plan to end it, not only by drafting a new law to be placed in parliament, but also with a budget to build toilets. The BJP and its cohorts are on the wrong side of history and decency.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2012.