For much of India, toilets are all about an issue of sanitation, health, privacy and dignity, and gender rights

Let’s forget about what Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh said and focus on what he is trying to do. It is not an easy campaign to launch and run. Imagine someone asking what do you do? And having to answer, I promote toilets — toilet construction and toilet use. Most activists would happily say — I work on land rights, or housing rights, or equal wages, or the right to education. How many of us would stand up, proud, without batting an eyelid and say, I work on toilet rights? Saddled by both a yuck factor and funny factor, it’s a tough sell. Dealing with defecation, and its stench is yes, yucky. And scatological jokes, a dime a dozen.

Also, toilets appear trivial, fairly low down on our list of stated development priorities. Right to food is up there on top. Then the “bijli, sadak, paani” slogan takes over. Adding “house w/toilet” seems a stretch. Almost a luxury that poor people somehow do not deserve. At best, middle-class India will accept a toilet rights movement only so it cleans up ‘our’ streets and roadsides, and we do not have to gingerly step over mounds of fly covered excrement when we take our morning walk. It’s the same sentiment that makes us want to remove or cover up slum dwellings and shanties. Remove the eyesore, so we can go about our pleasant lives without having to look at the unpleasant lives of our fellow citizens. And we can defecate every morning in the privacy of our tiled toilet, fitted with a flush, wondering why on earth “those people” think open defecation is their birthright.

Anyone who has spent time working with India’s have-nots (in this case — “those without toilets”) whether in rural or in urban areas, will know that “open defecation” is a bit of a euphemism. For women generally, there is nothing “open” about it, save for the sky above their heads.

In large parts of rural India, women wake up pre-dawn, and carry a vessel of water to a quiet spot, doing their business under the cover of darkness, managing to retain a bit of privacy and dignity. God forbid nature calls in the middle of the day, just hold it in. Never mind the cramps, chronic constipation, piles and poor digestion that will plague them for life. I recall a stroll at dawn many decades ago, along a small river in a backward peri-urban part of Uttar Pradesh. The sloping bank was dotted with squatting women, rows of exposed skin, but every face fully covered with a ghunghat. I understood something about the many ways women held on to their dignity — since they had no choice but to expose their bare bottoms for the world to see, they made sure no one could identify their faces. They were, quite literally, “saving face.”

Assam visit

On a recent visit to Assam with Oxfam India, among the few humanitarian aid agencies working there in both flood and conflict districts, I developed new appreciation for the toilet. When asked just what Oxfam was doing in the relief camps, I learnt it was distributing buckets, mugs, hygiene kits and constructing toilets. Toilets are their big thing (they have a target of 200 latrines) — quick semi-permanent constructions taking no more than two days to build, with a deep disposal pit, concrete slabs for squatting, in a plastic-sheeted cubicle. Visiting camp after camp I understood the priority. Imagine a camp with 12,000 displaced people, crowded into scores of tiny tents, in an open field that the incessant rains have turned into a swamp, with everyone defecating where they can. It is a health nightmare. Or, imagine another camp, where people walk to the nearest water body — a pond, a lake — and defecate in the same place from where they will later draw water for cooking. Sickness in these camps will spread like wildfire.

Women in the camps were the most appreciative of the toilets, for they clearly needed them most desperately. A half-hour boat ride away, in a flood stricken village partially swallowed up by the Brahmaputra, a woman came up to us. Oxfam had constructed a toilet about 20 feet outside her hut. She meekly asked if they could extend the tarpaulin screen from the side of her hut to the toilet, so that people in the village did not have to know every time she used it. Even in a time of such crisis, having lost everything else, she was trying to hold on to a bit of her dignity.

The fact is that toilets are not a trivial matter. Toilets are a sanitation issue, a health issue, a privacy and dignity issue, and yes, a gender rights issue. It’s time we took them seriously.

(Farah Naqvi, a writer and activist, is a member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed are personal. Email:

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