India’s dirty ways

Published: October 12, 2012

The writer is a stage director, film-maker and journalist in Bangalore. He is a cofounder of the Suchitra Centre for Film and Drama

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.

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Reader Comments (46)

  • raj
    Oct 12, 2012 - 2:34AM

    in absolute numbers…india tops the list when it comes to open defecation in the world…followed by indonesia,china and pakistan….even though i am a hindu…i find nothing wrong in what he said….we can learn from china and pakistan in this matter so that access to sanitation improves in india……….

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  • gp65
    Oct 12, 2012 - 2:46AM

    YEs. absence of adequate toilets is an issue in India. Jairam Ramesh is right to take it up. Why are you dragging BJP in this though when it only has ruled for 6 years and Congress/allies have ruiled over 50 years? Or do you think the word temple is patented to the organizations you listed and no-one other than members of VHP, Bajrang Dal and BJP go to temples?

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  • Hukum Singh
    Oct 12, 2012 - 2:59AM

    Author wrote – “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.”

    As a North Indian, who has visited all of South Asia (except Pakistan and Bhutan), I can say that Kerala is the cleanest of all places in South Asia. I think cleaner than Sri Lanka. Keralites themselves are generally law-abiding and orderly and neat even the poorest among them. Hard to find a comparable place in India. Sri Lanka with its literacy comes closest.

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  • Hasan
    Oct 12, 2012 - 3:09AM

    Hindustan – the rising superpower of the 21st century.

    God bless Partition.

    Hasan

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  • Learner
    Oct 12, 2012 - 3:34AM

    Well written!. Pakistanis also need to learn a lesson.

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  • Gary
    Oct 12, 2012 - 4:55AM

    “It is tempting to believe that part of the answer is in education and the empowerment of women.”

    Yes, that’s a fact. The benefits of women’s eduction is immense. There is so much inter-linkages between girls education, gender inequalities, economic growth and poverty. More educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn more income, have fewer children, and provide better health care and education to their children and family, all of which eventually improve the well-being of all individuals and lift households out of poverty.

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  • Raw is War
    Oct 12, 2012 - 5:57AM

    why should it offend BJP? Congress ruled for 50 plus years and made India a toilet.

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  • gp65
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:07AM

    @Gary: What you say is true and that has been the focus. Women’s literacy has been rising at a much faster rate than men’s literacy in India. Among children school attendance at lest until the 7th class between boys and girls is comparable. For years the gap between men and women’s literacy was a high 22% but in the last census it came down to 16%. Other areas that help women are the Janani Suraksha Yojana that is actively pushing institutional deliveries since maternity which should be the happiest period in a woman’s life often becomes her death bed. 33% of women in panchaayats are women, so we have around a million women elected in local government positions. A lot of women are also employed in the NREGA program helping with economic empowerment. Laws against dowry harassment which in earlier years were observed in breach now are enforced in a big way. One hopes that Amir Khan’s satyamevjayate would have created a similar support system to implementing laws against female foeticide.

    Lot has happened, lot more needs to happen, so that women can stand up toe to toe with the men in the coming years. The prgress is there – my mother had more rights than my grandma and I have more than my Mom and my niece has more opportunities than me but the pace of progress needs to quicken with some well designed interventions.

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  • usman786
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:23AM

    Shinning India. But we Pakistanis need to have more toilets than mobile phones and these shd be kept clean for use. May be RS 5 as service charges. Do we have ladies toilet in any bazar/mall

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  • Arindom
    Oct 12, 2012 - 7:19AM

    This Indian habit is abhorrent!! second to spitting on staircase landings. I am not ashamed to admit it. And there is nothing religious in this!

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  • Hindustani
    Oct 12, 2012 - 7:39AM

    @Hukum Singh

    who writes “As a North Indian, who has visited all of South Asia (except Pakistan and Bhutan), I can say that Kerala is the cleanest of all places in South Asia. I think cleaner than Sri Lanka. Keralites themselves are generally law-abiding and orderly and neat even the poorest among them.”

    There is a genuine reason behind that. Keralites are generally extraordinarily narrow minded people. They are very parochial (you can compare them to Saudis) and do not accept outsiders. Tamilains and Biharis whom you find pretty much in every part of the country as migrants, find it difficult to live in Kearala because of the extreme parochial and bigoted nature of the locals.

    Obviously when migration goes down, population remains low and a state remains clean.

    States like Gujarat, Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnatak, Andhra are prone to too much migration, making it difficult to control and manage the growth, resulting in filth.

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  • Hukum Singh
    Oct 12, 2012 - 8:30AM

    @Hindustani:
    Seems like you have lot of hatred for Kerala people. That is your personal business and I really don’t care about that.

    Reason why there is no migrants in Kerala is because of communists. I am a businessman from Marwar- Rajasthan. The places in India where I would hate to do business is – West Bengal, Kerala and Kashmir. And Kerala and WB because of their ridiculous labor laws and Kashmir becasue of bad law & order. Bihar was also bad but Nitish changed that.

    Beside, Kerala is not good for locals too. Most people from Kerala are all over India and Gulf becasue they can’t find jobs at home.

    You mentioned Kerala are bigoted towards outsiders. I don’t think so. During Onam, their major festival – the Kerala Govt. gave appreciation gift to all migrant workers who are working in Kerala and making a contribution. check the link below-

    http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/onam-celebration-kerala-thank-migrants/1/214896.html

    Onam celebration: Kerala’s unique way to thank migrants

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  • Rakib
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:44AM

    @Hindustani:

    IMO:A vice such as parochialism can never lead to a virtue called cleanliness My impression was migration in to Kerala is low because of lack of opportunities there due to lack of big industry or big business. And for the same reason there is substantial migration out,to rest of India & to Gulf. There are many amusing tales of the migrant Malayalees. Had Kerala been traditionally a land of bigots Judaism, Islam and Christianity would have been finished off as soon as its early followers found Malabar coast to be the first area in the subcontinent to enter. To the best of my information, even today, the only district in India that has a Muslim-majority is in Kerala (Malappuram)..

    It is not only Kerala but the entire strip from Goa to Trivandrum thru Karwar, Honnavar, Bhatkal, Udipi, Mangalore, Calicut, Cochin & so on is distinct in terms of relative cleanliness. Heavy monsoons in western ghats, abundance of the backwaters & rivers & canals including ancient waterways for moving people & freight, the greenery, the huge plantations of multi-use coconut trees whose hollow stem can be used as a conduit for waste, the use of banana plant leaves as plates and bio-degradable bowls made of similar leaves, the steamy weather necessitating at least two luxurious baths a day in the running water,the relatively simple & laid back life style (ere the Gulf boom), the preference for white or pastel shades for one’s garments that has to be washed daily, certain ethnic peculiarities in taking pride in keeping one’s surroundings clean & so on, that rub off on immigrants too, are some of the factors, and not parochialism, that keeps the South-West clean.

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  • Bilal
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:49AM

    no wonder the fertility of their soil is better than ours!

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  • karma
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:53AM

    gp65: I don’t think author is dragging BJP. BJP dragged itself and started objecting to a very wise and sane comment. BJP is trying to make it an emotive issue – it isn’t.

    It is obvious that every family needs a toilet. Every family doesn’t need a temple – thus there has to be more toilets than temples. The logic is impeccable and the sentiment is absolutely correct as Toilets are indeed temples of personal hygiene.

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  • Somesh
    Oct 12, 2012 - 10:05AM

    @raj:
    china and pakistan in this matter so that access to sanitation improves in india……….
    China accepted….. Because it has a population larger than us and even though in an autocratic manner, it has achieved something commendable…. Pakistan on the other hand – You need to check facts.. They are not better than us if not equal regards this….
    Now, coming to India, being a doctor myself and having worked in the “Dept of Preventive and Social Medicine” which deals with these things, i know very well that making toilets for free and asking or forcing people to use them will not work, simply because people of rural areas find it ‘Odd’ to use toilets… The problem is not financing…. A country with such an economy can afford providing these facilities for free…. So, the actual problem here is education… Once that comes, people get to know the importance of hygiene and the need to use the facilities for the same…..

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  • Sajida
    Oct 12, 2012 - 10:51AM

    Bangladesh is shaming both India and Pakistan.
    “First pioneered in Bangladesh in 2000 it has now spread
    across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East

    http://www.communityledtotalsanitation.org/sites/communityledtotalsanitation.org/files/id21specialCLTS.pdf
    An end to open defecation?

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  • vasan
    Oct 12, 2012 - 11:18AM

    Hindustani : You may justify any reason for the filthy habits of defacation in the open. Finally what matters is education as clean habits ,emphasized via education only will help.

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  • DarKnight
    Oct 12, 2012 - 12:17PM

    @Hasan.

    You are right.

    Thank Jinnah for asking for a separate nation. The issue of lack of proper sanitation in India will be solved in coming future as our nation grows, maybe in another 5 to 6 years, the steps had already been taken. They above-mentioned article is the proof of it.

    God Bless Jinnah.. :)Recommend

  • Abhi
    Oct 12, 2012 - 12:32PM

    @hassan
    true.

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  • Oct 12, 2012 - 12:36PM

    Gandhi ji were such a forward thinker. whatever he said then still applies.

    Greatest leader indian subcontinent has produced

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  • Python
    Oct 12, 2012 - 12:54PM

    @Author

    Hardly understandable that why Mr Jairam Naresh had to compare toilets with temples.
    Aren’t there mosques in India? Does India needs more mosques? He could have simply said that india needs more toilet rather then places of worship.But why did he exclusively picked up the word ‘temple’?
    There are millions of people who go to temple and comparing it like this will surely hurt them but Mr Jairam is lucky that they are hindus and there religion teaches them to be tolerant.
    If he would have picked the word ‘mosque’ then god knows what would have happened!

    The BJP and its cohorts are on the wrong side of history and decency.

    So is Congress,it has ruled the country for almost 60 years and still india lacks toilet then who is to blame ,BJP or Congress? So much for your pompous self-righteous flagellation of BJP!

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  • Bala
    Oct 12, 2012 - 1:29PM

    @Hindustani:

    Its true that settling down in Kerala is tough, it is not because keralites are bad people, its more because Kerala is controlled by communist party and business opportunities are very very less. I am from TN, even keralites migrate out of kerala after they finish schooling.

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  • Hindustani
    Oct 12, 2012 - 3:35PM

    @Hukum Singh who writes “Reason why there is no migrants in Kerala is because of communists. I am a businessman from Marwar- Rajasthan. The places in India where I would hate to do business is – West Bengal, Kerala and Kashmir.”

    Perhaps you didn’t understand what I am talking about.

    I am not talking about doing business in Karala. I am talking about laborers and small time traders who migrate to every state, including west Bengal. As a businessman you should know the amount of migration from north eastern states and Orissa to Colkota and other cities in west Bengal. You don’t see that in Kerala.

    Because locals are extra ordinarily bigoted, narrow minded, untrustworthy people. They won’t another person succeed. They will do everything within their coterie to pull the others down.

    I know. Because I have a connection with Kerala.

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  • joy
    Oct 12, 2012 - 5:07PM

    Good that the minister talks about it regularly..at least he has brought the issue into focus…now is the time to act and devise means to solve the problem…

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  • Oct 12, 2012 - 5:33PM

    @gp65: No one is dragging BJP they themselves jumped in the well by declaring their hurt by the the remarks of the minister

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  • Rajan
    Oct 12, 2012 - 5:55PM

    @Hindustani:
    I find your characterization of keralites as being ‘extremely parochial’ very deceptive and misinformed…..a bunch of malarkey, if you will.
    New York city, that is if you know where it is very open and diverse….people come there from all over, but it is far cleaner than any city in north india. So the issue of civic hygiene, my friend, depends not on whether a place is open and welcoming of immigrants, it is more of a state of mind. People will need to appreciate cleanliness, which is why kerala is cleaner, and most of north india, remains as clean as pigsty.

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  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    Oct 12, 2012 - 5:59PM

    @Hindustani:

    Tamilains and Biharis whom you find
    pretty much in every part of the
    country as migrants, find it difficult
    to live in Kearala

    Makes me wonder if you ever lived in Tamilnadu for a reasonably long time.

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  • Vinayak
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:04PM

    @Hukum Singh

    I am sure that ‘Hindustani’ is not a Hindustani at all.

    His comments on Keralites are so childish.

    Besides, hardly any Marwari businessman can manage even simple English. They are typically not technology savvy. Most Marwari businessmen have little concern in their mind outside their own business.

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  • Abhi
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:19PM

    @Rajan
    You chose really wrong example.
    Newyork may be cleaner than cities in north india but it not cleanest city in north america.
    You can find trash on time square and not to mention sub-urbs (New Jersey). Some of them are called as arm-pit of USA.

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  • Hindustani
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:30PM

    @Rajan, Yuri and Vinayak

    Truth is bitter, ain’t it?

    What I said is the true and you guys don’t have the stomach to digest it.

    I run a tourism business and have tie ups with a lot of Kerala resorts, travel agencies etc.

    They want our business, money. They don’t want our people.

    And don’t wonder, I have a branch of my office in Chennai in Adyar, close to Adyar river, which has been turned into a sewer.

    I have branches in all major cities in India. I have dealt with all types of people from all region. Keralites are the worst of them all.

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  • Zoro
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:32PM

    what was so offensive in my comments ???

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  • Nitish
    Oct 12, 2012 - 6:45PM

    @Vinayak: I am sure that ‘Hindustani’ is not a Hindustani at all.
    What is the problem with you .So if his views r different from yours ,you will denounce his citizenship.India is a free country and he is as much indian as you r.Thousands r there who can support his views .Go and discard their citizenship as well.soon you will find yourself alone among the crowd.

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  • Rashmi
    Oct 12, 2012 - 7:17PM

    Literacy could be a valid reason why Kerala is a shining example of a state where women’s rights are accepted. For the rest of India we are totally insensitive to women’s rights. We are big on “SAVE THE GIRL CHILD”. I say save her for what – so she can’t have the dignity of even going to a clean loo.
    We desperately need to get our act together. Even our supreme court is giving an ultimatum to states & centre that all schools must have clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. It would be better instead of an Education cess the Govt of India start a SANITATION cess and build toilets or see to it that the Govt schools toilets atleast function and are clean.

    Perhaps the Govt can also look at the possibility of allowing public especially from the marginalised section and the poor women to use the toilet facilities in the schools early morning and after schools. That would help enormously to get people to stay away from open defecation.

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  • PakPunjabi
    Oct 12, 2012 - 7:21PM

    I have met very few Indians (other than Indian Punjabis in Canada) but I can testify that people from Kerala and Sri Lanka (Sinhalese) are very nice. Tamils are good too but people from Kerala are simply very nice natured and very warm. South Indians are generally not involved in the India-Pak rivalry and can see beyond this absurd conflict and I admire them for that.Recommend

  • Vinayak
    Oct 12, 2012 - 7:48PM

    @Nitish:
    If he can denounce a whole community of people, can’t I have a problem with him alone? I am sure most Indians will be with me on this.

    @Hindustani:

    They want our business, money. They don’t want our people.

    I am yet to see a half-sane person who will want to settle down in Kerala, for the simple reason that there is not enough jobs there. Most Keralites leave Kerala to work in Dubai or other states in India.

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  • Deb
    Oct 12, 2012 - 8:19PM

    The best part of it all is that no fatwa has been issued against Jairam Ramesh for putting two words, ‘Temple’ and ‘Toilet’ in the same sentence.

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  • rajesh
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:35PM

    @python
    absolutely right

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  • Arijit Sharma
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:40PM

    I only have issues with “pastors” from Kerela. They can be quite the leech when it comes to trying to make you “come to Christ”. Baah !!

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  • Rakib
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:53PM

    @Deb:

    The best part of it all is that no fatwa has been issued against Jairam Ramesh for putting two words, ‘Temple’ and ‘Toilet’ in the same sentence.

    True, Jairam the Hindu reminds me of Iqbal’s words. Sakhtiyan Karta Hun Dil Par, Ghair Se Ghafil Hun Main ( I bear hardships on myself, I am unconcerned with others)

    However,he belongs to the caste whose Elders could have, a generation ago, socially boycotted him & that punishment would have been worse than death. Jairam Ramesh is born in to one of the most orthodox Vaishnavite Priestly Brahmin clans called the Mysore branch of Iyengars of Karnataka. He is sure of what he is talking about since he knows, first hand, that ritualistic purity of Temple Priests does not always lead to social hygiene of the community at large. He has to make a beginning somewhere & he is hardly expected to speak with same authority on places of worship of other religions, especially the well organised ones. His words may not have a ring of sincerity if he merely guesses & talks of toilet-facilities provided by SGPC of Sikhs or Bombay Parsi Punchayet or Christian CSI/CNI or the Waqf Boards.

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  • gp65
    Oct 12, 2012 - 9:57PM

    @Deb:
    There is nothing wrong in what he said. We do need more toilets and already have enough temples.

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  • Arijit Sharma
    Oct 12, 2012 - 10:34PM

    What we need is a Ministry for Sanitation and Waste Management.

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  • Hukum Singh
    Oct 12, 2012 - 11:48PM

    @Vinayak:
    You are saying-”Besides, hardly any Marwari businessman can manage even simple English. They are typically not technology savvy. Most Marwari businessmen have little concern in their mind outside their own business.”

    You are making lot of assumptions here. That – Marwari businessman cannot speak English and cannot surf internet and they don’t care for anything other than business. How many Marwardis have you actually met?

    Lakshmi Mittal (net worth 15-20 billion $) of Mittal STeel, Kumar Mangalam Birla (5-10 billion $), Rahul Bajaj of Bajaj Scooters, Dhoot of Videocon are some of the richest men in India. All are Marwadis. You think they can’t speak English and don’t know technology.

    The guy who funded Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement was GD Birla (who built BITS Pilani)

    Anyone can learn English and surf the net even Marwari kirana shop-owners. And between kirana-dukan-wala and billinoaires they are million of other marwadis – some of whom are govt-job walla and some small business owners and some import-export wala like me.

    Just becasue the only Marwadi guy you know owns a kirana shop and can’t speak english and does not care about anything does not mean all are like them.Recommend

  • Vinayak
    Oct 13, 2012 - 7:56AM

    @Hukum Singh:
    I agree with all your points. I am aware of these things. My sole purpose of writing like I did was to poke our ‘Hindustani’ friend. If he is really a Marwadi businessman, (which I very much doubt) he should be able to take what he dishes out.

    Note that I have not been mean to any community. Many people of developed countries (Notably Germany and Japan) don’t care to learn English and most doctors are not able to work with computers. So not being able to speak English or not being tech savvy, is not a bad thing.

    I am still unable to picture any Indian, let alone a Marwadi businessman, who will adopt the title ‘Hindustani’, instead of using his real name or some other alias, and spew venom targeted at a specific Indian community, on a Pakistani news site. This article is about sanitation, and it is mostly good self-criticism. However, his comments have nothing to do with the article.

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  • gp65
    Oct 13, 2012 - 12:25PM

    @karma: “It is obvious that every family needs a toilet. Every family doesn’t need a temple – thus there has to be more toilets than temples. The logic is impeccable and the sentiment is absolutely correct as Toilets are indeed temples of personal hygiene.

    Certainly agree with you a 100% there. Not questioning Jairam Ramesh’s priorities by any means. In fact even in my first post, I supported his priorities.

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  • bmniac
    Oct 13, 2012 - 9:42PM

    in 1971 a young IAS officer took charge as the Commissioner of Kozhikode(Calicut)municipal Corporation. He found in a few days time that there were a few thousand private houses where excrement was removed manually. He spoke to the mayor and others. They were used to it and indifferent. He prepared a scheme for 50% subsidy for conversion within a month. After which there would be no subsidy nor any cleaning service from the Corporation. The mayor and the Finance committee approved and smiled when he went to them. They were kind and advised him to be prepared for both criticism and disappointment. They had seen the young man walking around the town monitoring street cleaning and garbage removal but they had not felt the impact on those living in the mohallas.(Nor had he) The Commissioner went to the house owners meeting them in groups and even arranging for bank loans. The threat of withdrawal of service remained. Within a month all the latrines were converted. A few house owners refused the subsidy. The mayor and the Councillors were agreeably shocked. In Karnataka one still finds this abomination. And this is the home state of Jairam Ramesh.Not his fault either!
    It is incidental that the Commissioner happened to be an Iyengar (Vaishnavite) from Tamilnadu

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