The stink from India’s past

History says India had the oldest wet toilets. So what happened since then?

June 04, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Something happened recently in Delhi that should have never happened in a civilised society. An e-rickshaw driver was beaten to death by a few men. His crime: he stopped those men from urinating in public and directed them towards the public urinal that was available on a nearby street. The news channels flashed the story on TV screens, hoping to draw disgust and rage. But truth be told, do we care? Did we ever care?

In almost every reference to India’s glorious past, we never fail to mention the humble yet advanced civilisation that existed the plains of the Indus river. But when we began to compile the greatness and achievements of the Harappans, we left possibly their most important contribution out of our history books. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I’m talking about toilets.

Among the many firsts India can lay claim to, we were also the country that had the world’s first wet toilet (the equivalent of a modern-day toilet) possibly in 2500 B.C. A blurb in Sulabh International’s manual on ‘The History of Toilets’ says: “Excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro revealed a highly developed drainage system where waste water from bathrooms as well as toilets in each house flowed into the main sewer through a drain pipe passing under each house.” The Harappans had an advanced sanitation engineering system. And building toilets in every home was standard operating procedure during the Harappan times.

So what happened between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 2017 that made toilets disappear from many of India’s homes? What happened over these millennia that led to more than half of India’s population ditching toilets and starting defecation in the open? And would even kill a fellow-Indian to keep it this way?

No one can really say for sure. There are only brief references to toilets in the annals of India’s history, while there is nothing recorded about the numbers, usage, or even significance of toilets. As a result, experts and their studies have only reached as close to finding out that after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilisation, toilets never became a household priority though every person born since that time has obviously relieved himself/herself routinely.

The only time-period after the collapse of Harappa that the historians have managed to find a drain-connected toilet was in the city of Chirand during the Kushana period. Post this began the dark age of open defecation in India that over the centuries took deep cultural and social roots.

Many historians believe that with the arrival of the nomadic Aryans, open defecation too entered the Indian psyche. A wandering tribe would have never settled, built a house, or felt the need to build a toilet.

As populations began to settle, open defecation as a practice was codified through scriptures such as the Manusmriti that laid out rules on which direction to face while defecating and which hand to use for cleaning. One of the rules in the Manusmriti lays it down: “At least 40 hands distance is to be observed while urinating near a river or temple and defecation should be at least at a distance of 400 hands.” No one, however, made building toilets a requirement.

As few more centuries passed and open defecation became rampant. And it was only after the arrival of the caravans of the Arab traders and the Mughals that toilets were once again constructed. But this time they made a comeback with a heavy price of “manual scavengers” or “halalkhors”.

Concerned about their women being exposed while defecating, Arab traders and Mughal kings built toilets on their premises. But these were dry latrines that required someone else to do the dirty job. As a result, a class of manual scavengers was born in India to clean up the mess of the kings and their queens. The rest of the civilians meanwhile eased up on following the rules as given in the scriptures and continued to, as V.S. Naipaul once remarked about Indians’ toilet habits, “do [it] everywhere without looking for a cover.”

Even with the arrival of the Europeans, toilets (which were by now a mandatory requirement in every house in the imperial world) did not make a similar breakthrough in colonial India. The Portuguese and the English did not bother to dismantle the inhuman practice of manual scavenging even though the first water closet had been invented and put into use as early as the 1700s. Toilets remained a luxury of the kings and the aristocracy while India’s towns and villages resembled and smelled like “mass privies”.

A quick look at India’s history since the Harappan Civilisation would tell you that open defecation and lack of use of toilets in India is a practice hardened by centuries of neglect not only by households but also successive kings and administrations. The filth certainly bothered everyone, but never enough to warrant any course-correction. That is why the Swachh Bharat Mission is an admirable effort.

For the first time in 3,000 years, toilets have risen in status as structures of national importance, with targeted communication campaigns being created and dispersed through print, radio and TV to popularise them. From once being absent from our homes, toilets and Swachh Bharat have entered our drawing room conversations.

The creation of a toll-free helpline number to request toilets in your area or apps such as Google Toilet Locator or Swachhalaya or even “Selfie with Toilet” may only seem like marketing gimmicks, but in India where open defecation has been woven into the country’s living fabric and can even lead to killings, raising the stink around open defecation is a needed and a welcome step. Since October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed the nation 32 times through his radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’. He spoke on sanitation and toilets in most of them.

Let’s remember the name of the e-rickshaw driver, Ravinder, who was killed for stopping public urination and for keeping his city clean. Let’s show him we care for the cause that he died defending.

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