Census 2011 threw up a malodorous statistic: people in 49.8 per cent of households have no toilet facilities and defecate in the open. In contrast, 63.2 per cent of households have a telephone connection, of which 52.3 per cent have cell phones; as for televisions, almost half of the country’s households possess one. Nobody would even whisper in protest if someone, struck by this perverse anomaly, were to say that Indians needs toilets more than they do television sets and telephones. So why is there such blather over some perfectly reasonable remarks by Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh which were intended to stress that India requires more toilets than it does more temples? His suggestion that India has more temples than toilets was not part of an anti-religious tirade but a piece of hyperbole to stress the importance of sanitation in a speech to panchayat-level workers at the launch of a campaign to end open defecation. To suggest, as some have, that it was an insidious attempt to hyphenate toilets and temples in an ugly alliterative juxtaposition is rank nonsense.
In a country where politics hungrily attempts to feed off prickly religious sensitivities, Mr. Ramesh’s comments have been twisted out of context and blown out of all proportion. BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy has alleged that such comments would destroy the “fine fabric of religion and faith” and the fierce chorus of protests have led the Congress to forsake principle for expedience and distance itself from Mr. Ramesh’s remarks. Predictably, in this republic of hurt sentiments, at least one complaint has already been lodged with the police asking that a case be booked against him for outraging religious feelings — which, given the circumstances, reads like poor toilet humour. The only voice in favour of Mr. Ramesh emerged from Sulabh International, an NGO committed to the building of toilets. Organisations like these understand how vital toilets are to the well-being of India. A World Bank study conducted a couple of years ago estimated the economic impact of the lack of toilets and sanitation facilities, which it pegged at a staggering Rs. 24,000 crore annually — or 6.4 per cent of India’s GDP. This loss is created by deaths, especially of children, the cost of treating hygiene-related illnesses, losses from reduced productivity and educed tourism revenues. Open defecation is an ugly reminder of the country’s poverty and the failure of the government to provide adequate water and sanitation facilities. But it is more than a matter of shame and embarrassment — it has social and economic implications that this country can hardly afford.