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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleaned up in the country’s elections this year, winning government by an absolute landslide to form the first majority government since 1984.
Since coming into office in May, Modi has been cleaning up in other ways – identifying enhanced public sanitation as one of the key issues and nation-building programs for the world’s second-most populous nation.
Speaking to a packed Sydney arena of Australian-Indians in November, during the first visit to Australia by an Indian PM in almost 30 years, Modi said that it will surprise his contemporaries that he is encouraging people to improve “laggard” sanitation facilities.
But in contemporary India, sanitation is a genuine problem; particularly when it comes to one of those most human of functions – going to the toilet.
The issue has sparked an unlikely hero – UNICEF’s Mr Poo, an anthropomorphised feces that dances and sings as he tells people to take “poo to the loo”. In some quarters he’s been the subject of scorn.
It’s also the subject of a new study by India researchers Assa Doron, from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, and Robin Jeffrey, from the National University of Singapore.
In their paper, Open defecation in India, they highlight how at least 50 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people defecate and urinate outdoors. More than 600 million people are estimated to lack effective sanitation.
“Public sanitation and India’s lack of toilets became a prominent theme in 2014,” write Doron and Jeffrey.
“During the general election campaign, Narendra Modi argued that toilets should be prioritised over temples.
“And in his recent Independence Day speech, apart from removing filth and squalor, Modi promised toilets in schools, especially for girls, who suffer daily indignity and are forced to drop out.”
In the same speech Modi vowed to eliminate open defecation. For good reason.
There’s the standard public health and hygiene issues; open defecation sees many thousands of Indians living in close quarters die from preventable diseases and suffer from chronic illnesses like enteropathy – which stops the body from absorbing calories and nutrients.
And according to a recent survey, contamination from the uncontrolled spread of human faeces is responsible for a large proportion of India’s infant and child mortality rates, and a high prevalence of stunted growth among infants and children.
To add fuel to the fire, the survey found that poorer neighbour Bangladesh had greater access to toilets.
But any solution to going to the loo in the open will require technology as well as a consideration of cultural and social factors.
For example, many Indians see that human waste is something they should take as far away from the home as possible – particularly when households are without a toilet.
Taking a solely ‘Western’ approach might not deliver the best results either – particularly when one considers the unsustainability of water-intensive systems in an time of radical climate change.
“Although there is much discussion of public sanitation and ‘open defecation’ by Prime Minister Modi, taming human waste in India proves a complex challenge, far exceeding mere technical fixes,” write Doron and Jeffrey.
Doron and Jeffrey argue that technology, local government and popular knowledge have to unite in distinctive “cultural chemistries” to make the taming of human waste a demand made by citizens rather than a burden imposed upon them.
They’ve identified what they call a “laundry list” of issues that need to be addressed and which have inhibited the spread of a comprehensive sanitation program in India.
Take class for example. Doron and Jeffrey point out that land in the countryside is concentrated in the hand of the few, and generally the wealthy, who may forbid the poor from using their fields for defecation (often a convenient and cost-free option for relieving themselves).
“The economically dominant can impose on lower- status people the inconvenience of a longer walk to find suitable, and perhaps less hospitable, ground,” they write.
“And in towns and cities, poor people live either in bricks-and-mortar slums, where a few latrines might be available for hundreds of people, or in shanty colonies where there are no latrines at all.
“Public toilets employing a user-pay model may prove effective in some settlements; but for many people, having to pay to defecate represents an unwanted expense.”
Then there’s sociability. For many in the ‘West’, the idea of being surrounded by strangers, or even friends, while going to the toilet would turn their stomachs.
But in village India, open defecation in the fields can be a social occasion that brings people both pleasure and closer together.
“For many men, the fields are their daily workplace, and to defecate there is convenient and perhaps provides a chance to talk with friends,” write Doron and Jeffrey.
In a society were households are still dominated by men, it is perhaps gender that will prove to be one of the biggest hurdles to the solving the problem of open defecation. In many cities, access to public toilets is something that only men enjoy.
The lack of clean, secure toilets leaves women facing huge disadvantages and reinforces gender inequalities. These include dropping out of school, suffering from unnecessary urinary and genital infections, and the danger of sexual assault – as they often need to go to secluded and far-off locations to relieve themselves.
Even so, some women need to be convinced of the merits of toilets.
“Long-standing convictions about the pollution resulting from excrement within one’s dwelling need to be dispelled, along with the belief that defecation in the fresh air is healthy,” write Doron and Jeffrey.
“Any intervention in sanitary practices must take account of gender roles, responsibilities and preferences.”