“Every day was agony – waiting for it to get dark so that there was no one around who could see me, forcing me to hold on even though my bladder was bursting,” Sangeeta Mali, 23. The lack of toilets in homes and in public areas throughout India makes this a reoccurring theme. More than 2.3 billion people in the world do not have access to toilets, and more than one-third of them live in India. According to UNICEF, the lack of access to toilets particularly affects women and children who are more susceptible to diseases or infections. As such, most women regulate their liquid intake so that they are able to hold off until they can use a toilet which usually leads to dehydration and other health problems.
“Access to a toilet is a basic human right; however, millions of women and girls living in the world’s slums have nowhere safe to go. Without toilets in their home, or adequate communal toilet blocks to use, many women living in urban slums are forced to use public spaces to openly defecate and manage their menstrual needs”(Water Aid). This problem not only impacts womens’ health and dignity by having to wait until dark so no one can see them but also increases the threat of sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of violence. The dark protects their modesty because they do not want men to see them defecating but also increases their risk. Many women go out in groups to increase their safety. According to Unicef, around 564 million Indians, nearly half the population, still defecate in the open — in fields, forests, next to ponds, along highway medians and on the beach.”
Almost one hundred years ago, Mahatma Ghandi stated, “Sanitation is more important than independence.” India now has billions more people who live in urban areas, making this an even greater problem than when Ghandi pointed out this critical issue in 1925. To tackle this issue and other related issues, the Indian government initiated the Clean India Campaign, part of the program is the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).
This campaign seeks to increase sanitation amongst the population by persuading the citizens to keep the streets, roads, and infrastructure of the country clean. Its slogan is aimed at appealing to the individual citizens, “sanitation and hygiene starts with you and me.” One of the main goals of the Swachh Bharat is to end or decrease open defecation by building individual toilets for homes and communities. The government has set the laudable goal to achieve Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India by the 2nd of October 2019 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. The government has claimed that they will build 100 million toilets in rural India.
According to SBM over 5 million toilets have been built; however, the New York Times states that many of these are built so quickly that they are not connected to running water so they become “fly-ridden and stinky and no one wants to use them.” So millions continue to openly defecate, and the spread of disease is still a major problem.
Dr. Roja, the Doctor at Madras Christian College, explained that Indians are very clean people. Their customs and religion provides them with a guideline for sanitation. However, these religious guidelines only consider personal spaces (their home) and not what happens in public spaces. Interestingly this situation is in line with the theory of the “tragedy of the commons”; since no one in India owns the public spaces they are used as their dumping grounds (literally).
At the end of September we worked with the Hyderabad Urban Lab on urban environmental projects. As I walked through the city, I noticed a lot of human feces in the streets and alleyways. I was also surprised that many of the walls where men were urinating had symbols of the different religions and had written in large letters, “Please do not pass urine here.” I was interested by the fact that they used religion to attempt to deter men from using that space to urinate. As we continued our walk, I realized that there was a lack of public toilets available in the area. Therefore, I assume that the people didn’t choose to defile their religious symbols; they simply continued to urinate there because there was nowhere else to use the bathroom. This also became a problem for me when I realized I needed to use a public toilet. I immediately was able to put myself in the shoes of millions of Indians. But I had the good fortune to be able to head back to my hotel to use my pristine, private bathroom. While I treasure my independence, I was very grateful to have my sanitation needs so easily resolved. Even though the Indian government is making small strides in ameliorating this problem, they clearly have much to accomplish before they can claim their campaign to be a success on the 150th anniversary of Ghandhi’s birth.
United Nations (2010) The human right to water and sanitation. Resolution 64/292. Available at: www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/64/292
Nowhere to go: How a lack of safe toilets threatens to increase violence against women in slums
Roja. “Personal Hygiene and Public health in India.” Presentation at Madras Christian College International Guest House, Chennai, India, 14 September, 2017.