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After opinion makers recently linked the rising rapes to lack of toilets, there has been a nationwide debate on the issue. The counter argument is that while the number of rapes has spurted only now, defecating in the open has been India’s longest running problem. A survey says that India has more mobile users than homes with toilets. In a bid to address this disparity, the Government has announced that it will prioritise making India an open defecation-free country by 2022. This means, 800 million people with be provided with toilets. However, experts tell SHALINI SAKSENAthat the challenge doesn’t lie in building toilets but in changing the mindset of people who relieve themselves in the open as a force of habit


  • In Badaun, two teenage Dalit girls who had gone to relieve themselves in the fields at night, 200 metres from their home which didn’t have a toilet, were raped and then hanged from a tree.
  • A village woman in Karnataka who had gone to relieve herself at 5 am noticed a movement in the bushes a few feet away. Since there was no breeze, she was alarmed but before she could call for help emerged from the bush Asked what he was doing in an area demarcated for women, he said he had been looking for an opportunity to talk to her. He then tried to force himself on her. Some women happened to come by just then and raised an alarm. He escaped.
  • A 60-year-old woman in a village in Bihar had not had proper sleep ever since her sons got married and her daughter turned 13. With seven women in the house, the old woman has had a job to do through the night for close to 10 years — accompany one or the other daughter or daughter-in-law to the open fields. Her misery ended last year when the family got a toilet constructed in the house with the help of Sulabh International.
  • A 25-year-old woman in a UP  village landed up in hospital with severe constipation. The five-month pregnant woman told the nurse that she had not gone to relieve herself for 15 days as she was scared of a man who had followed her.
  • A 15-year-old girl recounted how her uncle and cousins would peep out of the bushes to watch her defecate in the open. Not only would they time their outing when she went to relieve herself, they would sometimes even stand up and stare at her. When she told her mother about it, she told her to keep quiet.

In a small cluster of villages in lower Himachal Pradesh, there has been some hectic activity hitherto unknown in the region. Every household has been busy constructing a toilet in its premises. For centuries these people have been using the open fields to defecate and all NGO campaigns to get them to use closed toilets have fallen on the wayside. But not any longer as word is out that their rations would not be given if they did not construct a toilet in their homes. Queries to officials concerned returned with a denial of any such order being issued. But, the rumour of such action has resulted in some positives. Now, most villages in this area have private toilets.

It is estimated that approximately 300 million women and girls defecate in the open, both in rural and urban India. They come from underprivileged sections of society. For them, finding a safe and private place to relieve themselves is an uphill task.

Several studies say that women in houses without toilets are more vulnerable to sexual crimes when using public facilities or open fields. While the situation may not be as bad in urban India, rural women bear the brunt of such crimes early in the morning or late in the evenings.

“This problem is a mindset issue. To have a toilet in the vicinity of the home was unthinkable and considered unhygienic. People, thus, had been defecating in the open for centuries. However, at that time the population was less. Finding a private space was easy. Not any more, not even in the villages. To have a toilet at home is must now,” Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh International, says.

He says that illiteracy is an added problem in this issue. “On the one hand you had civilisations like Mohanjodaro and Harappa which had a fantastic drainage system and, on the other, centuries later, you have a country where people think that defecating in the open is far more hygienic and healthy. So, it is not just about being poor.

“Also, there is this issue of who will clean a private toilet? An upper caste person living in a village will definitely not as it is against his religion. With the system of manual scavenging on its way out, the only option left is open fields. But these people have to understand that a flush toilet is not all that complex,” Pathak points out, adding that most villagers say that the reason why they don’t have a toilet in their homes is because it is a cement structure and they are used to relieving themselves in the open.

To help villagers overcome this roadblock, Sulabh came up with open roof toilets and a super-structure made of wood or bamboo to give them the feel of of a field. In such toilets, the brick and mortar walls are lined with wood, bamboo and dry grass with a jute curtain instead of a door, and an open roof. These are made 25 metres away from the main water source with two pits and the main toilet which uses only a litre-and-a-half of water for flushing purposes.

The depth of the pit depends on the number of people in a household. Once the pit is full, it is sealed for two years. During this time, the faeces turns into manure which can then be dug out by anyone. In the meantime, the other pit is used. And the cycle continues.

Experts say that defecating in the open is seeped in Indian culture. Why else, they ask, will a country with a 1.2 billion population have more mobiles than toilets at home? “A common problem in villages is that if one tells them to construct a bathroom for the convenience of women in the house, the refrain is, ‘We know how to take care of our women.’ Tell them that we will make it for them and the reply is, ‘What’s your profit in this?’

“So, we try to educate them and tell them the advantages of having a toilet and the benefits of hygiene. Some agree, others are wary and wait for the village elders to decide,” Pathak says.

To expect people to start using toilets overnight is no easy target. “Men and women go in separate groups to relieve themselves. This is the time when men discuss business and women their family. To convince them to build a toilet at home and use it will not be so easy,” Pathak, whose organisation has constructed 1.3 million toilets all over the country since the 70s, tells you.

A fact corroborated by WaterAid India. “When we try to convince villagers to construct toilets, there’s plenty of resistance. There are reasons. First, comes the money. They want to know who will fund it. When you tell them that half will be borne by the Government and the other half by them, they don’t want to do it. Also, if the people give the money, the Government takes a lot of time to sanction the other half. The villagers get tired of waiting and continue to defecate in the open. Second, while the women want a toilet, men don’t. And since they are the ones who make the financial decisions, there’s only a slim chance of getting the job done, head of policy with WaterAid India explains.

The third problem is the technical know-how of pit toilets. Most villagers dig one pit and once that is full, they are back to defecating in the open. Also, the construction material used is low grade and toilets crumble in a couple of years. It is financially more viable for them to use the open fields rather than pay repair costs.

But the biggest problem that most NGOs and Government agencies face is to change the mindset of the people, even when it comes to educated urban society. With total disregard to civic issues, you will find men getting out of their swanky cars and using public walls as their private loo.

“Open defecation is pegged only at 10 per cent in urban areas but that is not because of civic sense but because of a lack of open space or trees. So people in cities have no option but to use public toilets. It has been found that even in villages with a big population, defecation in the open is less as compared to villages which have larger open spaces,” he says.

Pathak says, the solution lies in moving from the top to the bottom and not the other way round in a country that still needs around 120 million toilets. Asking a man who earns Rs 100 a day to construct a toilet for Rs 18,500 will obviously be met with resistance. But if the rich people in a village first make toilets where manual scavenging is not required, others will follow suit. Also, it is important to construct public toilets in cities first.

There are many JJ colonies in urban areas where there are only a few public toilets. The setting up of a hi-tech bio-digester toilet in Delhi is a step in the right direction considering that the Government plans to provide toilets for 800 million people by 2019.

It’s a long overdue action by the Government which has increased the plan outlay for this measure from Rs 17 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 35 crore in the current financial year. This sum will be used for construction of toilets in JJ colonies.

“This a good move which shows that the Government finally means business. We have people to construct these toilets. The only problem is to implement this announcement,” Pathak says. He adds that it is a simple formula that the Government needs to follow. Divide each district into 10 blocks and train 10 people in spreading awareness about how to construct a proper toilet and the advantages of sanitation. Each block should have 100 villages. These 10 volunteers need to then train one person from each village. With a team in place, every household will have a toilet in a year’s time.

The Government’s move to make India an open defecation-free nation by 2022 is a welcome initiative. But, experts say, the challenge will not be in allocation of money or even constructing super-structures. It will be in convincing people to use these toilets. One doesn’t want thousands of toilets constructed with nobody using them. Efforts have to be made to teach people that following sanitation and hygiene will benefit them economically. This is something that even an uneducated man will understand. Seventy per cent of the money and effort should go into convincing people to use toilets and 30 per cent of the money should be used in construction. Once people are convinced of the advantages of having a toilet at home, India will automatically become a cleaner country.

  • Nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no toilet at home, but more people own a mobile phone, according to the latest census data
  • The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water and Sanitation (JMP) report, released by UNICEF and WHO says that, in India, 59 per cent of people (626 million) defecate in the open.
  • Only 46.9 per cent of the 246.6 million households have lavatories while 49.8% defecate in the open. The remaining 3.2% use public toilets.
  • Lack of toilets and poor hygiene practices in India cost Asia’s third largest economy almost $54 billion every year.
  • About 77% homes in Jharkhand have no toilet facilities, while the figure is 76.6% for Orissa and 75.8% in Bihar.
  • WHO says, in China, 1 out of 100 people defecate in the open; in India, it’s 1 out of every 2, the highest rate in the world.
  • World Bank experts say there are 4.5 lakh deaths out of 575 million cases of diarrhoea in India every year. Millions of people in rural and urban areas defecate in the open, do not wash their hands and cope with poor drainage systems.
  • Lack of proper sanitation cost India $260 million. A further $10.7 million is lost in ‘access time’ — the time spent looking for a shared toilet or open defecation site as compared to having a toilet in one’s own home.

‘A new life for my community & me’

For generations they had been cleaning lavatories and treated as outcasts. SHALINI SAKSENA speaks with one such manual scavenger USHA Chaumar who says her life took a U-turn in 2003 when she said no to the family’s ageold profession

She sits in a group laughing and sharing food with friends. But 11 years back, her job was to clean open toilets in a village near Alwar. A typical day would start at 6 am. Armed with a basket and a broom she would walk with her mother-in-law to the houses of the upper community to clean their latrines.

“When I look back at my life, I wonder how I did what I did for more than 18 years. I was seven when my mother started taking me with her and teaching me the tricks of the trade. She told me that if I didn’t get used to looking at the faeces and the smell, I would never be able to do the job. She also told me that I needed to make a good impression on my sasural when I got married. It was work that our community had been doing for generations. There was never an option to say no or to do something else. We lived in hutments outside the village. The upper caste shunned us. They would throw food at us, lest they touch us by mistake. The money for cleaning their toilets was also thrown at us,” Usha recalls — till in 2003 it all changed.

Social reformer Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, visited her village to promote sanitation. He stopped Usha who, at that time, was carrying a basket of human waste on her head to throw into an open pit. “‘Why are you doing this work?’ he  asked me. At first, I didn’t even realise he was speaking with me. I was not used to anyone talking to me directly and he looked like he was from a high caste. It was later that I came to know that he is a Brahmin. But when he repeated the question, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me this. His next question shocked me even more. He said why I didn’t leave this work. I told him he needed to talk to my husband,” Usha recounts.

Pathak then met Usha’s mother-in-law who told him that they were happy doing what they were meant to and did not want to stir up a hornet's nest. But Usha was intrigued and asked him what other job could she could do?

“He said to know that I would have to travel to Delhi. After he left, there was much debate. At that time each scavenging household was assigned 20 houses of the upper caste. At the end of the month, I would bring in Rs 200 and my mother-in-law another Rs 200. The men did odd jobs like plying a rickshaw. But they didn’t earn much because the upper caste people would not sit on their rickshaws.

“My husband told me to go for it — ‘Dilli dekhne ko milega’. When I came here, I was amazed. It is so beautiful. We were greeted with garlands and hugs. No one had ever touched our community let alone hug us,” Usha recalls.

That day changed her life. She and 27 other women from her community who had travelled with her were given vocational training in different fields like beauty, tailoring, making jute bags etc for the next three years on a stipend of Rs 1,500 a month. They were also taught how to read and write.

Today, Nai Disha, a vocational training centre, hires women like Usha who are paid Rs 4,000 a month. These women make jute bags and papads, do facials of women of upper caste. They are called for weddings. They sit, eat and drink with upper caste people.

Their husbands are hired as labour on the farms and are paid well. Each family from Usha’s community in her village now earns at least Rs 10,000 a month. Their children go to school.

As for Usha, she has come a long way. She has been to the US and Paris. She speaks fluent English and tells you that in the US, she learnt how to use the flush system and in Paris she bought a lipstick for her daughter.


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