Hindi film industry’s Akshay Kumar’s latest ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ brings to focus a very serious issue. In India, where a huge number of rural settings don’t have toilets, the issue isn’t just one of hygiene, it is one of safety too that is hugely compromised each time a woman steps out to relieve herself in the dark of the night or before dawn as is usually the case.
Also, contrary to popular perception, the issue isn’t about lack of means, but myriad misplaced views about defecating indoors.
The issue of toilets in India has always been closely associated with the safety of women and rape and making light of a PM candidate’s attempts to tackle it was deplorable to say the least. Social media enthusiasts had deemed it as the ‘funniest video ever’ when John Oliver made a mockery of Indian Politics and particularly Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto.
Oliver had dished out ‘witty’ remarks like “Wow! That’s a bold move, coming out as pro-toilet” or “So, who are you gonna vote for? Modi. Why? Because he appeared to me as a hologram and told me he’d give me a toilet,” and for many it was ‘hilariously funny.’ The video went viral and with it the ill-placed sarcasm aimed to belittle Modi’s poll plank.
While the lesser-viewed Oliver’s spiel wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, it surely provided for rather mediocre entertainment. That it became hugely viral espoused the fact that most viewers completely missed the point.
Satire is associated with verbal onslaughts that don’t quite qualify for penal action but risk being starkly insensitive to culture and gender issues. But then, for Oliver as with an equally-insensitive viewership, the satire was at worst … funny. Oliver and most of his giggly viewership were unaware of the impending risks that half of India’s population — a whopping 1/12th of the world’s — has to face while venturing out in the open at odd hours of the night or early morning for some private time in a wholly unsafe public space.
So, while the promise of ‘a toilet in every home’ may not feature on a US politician’s list of poll planks, but it is the need of the hour for a country like India where every house does not have a toilet of its own. It is of little wonder then that Narendra Modi, the-then prime ministerial candidate had even said that ‘Toilets were needed more than temples,’ in a statement that hit the nail on the head.
When two minor Dalit girls were found hanging from a tree in Badaun District in Uttar Pradesh leaving the entire nation horrified and Modi’s concerns vindicated. Injury marks were found on their bodies too. The girls were sisters and abducted by the perpetrators when they were on the way to relieve themselves in the fields.
The crime once again highlighted the fact that there is a dearth of public toilets and proper sanitation in India and that, the worst affected were women at the highest risk.
The sad fact is this was not a case in isolation. There have been many such cases reported across nation, in the past, when a vulnerable target was abducted, raped and/or murdered when she went to relieve herself in the open fields.
Having to fear for one’s safety every time a person needs to answer nature’s call should not be a ‘regular’ occurrence. But, in rural areas where one has to go searching for a deserted farms or fields or wait for it to get dark to relive oneself in a nearby jungle, safety is always compromised and those at the highest risk continue being women and children.
A UN report stated, “Our research showed that 6-year-olds who had been exposed to India’s sanitation programme during their first year of life were more likely to recognize letters and simple numbers on learning tests than those who were not,” said Dean Spears, lead author of the paper ‘Effects of Early-Life Exposure to Sanitation on Childhood Cognitive Skills’.
The paper studies the effects on childhood cognitive achievement of early life exposure to India’s Total Sanitation Campaign, a national scale government programme that encouraged local governments to build and promote use of inexpensive pit latrines.
The study also suggested that open defecation is an important threat to the human capital of developing countries and that a program accessible to countries where sanitation development capacity is lower could improve average cognitive skills.
“Open defecation lies at the root of many development challenges, as poor sanitation and lack of access to toilets impact public health, education and the environment,” had said Manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project Jaehyang So.
Ironically, in September 2011, UN rapped the USA in a report suggesting the Super Power did not provide adequate sanitation facilities for the homeless in its country. In an official report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a top UN investigator said that the United States’ failure to provide homeless persons access to water and sanitary facilities “could … amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.”
“The United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, must ensure that everyone (has access) to sanitation which is safe, hygienic, secure and which provides privacy and ensures dignity. An immediate, interim solution is to ensure access to restroom facilities in public places, including during the night. The long-term solution to homelessness must be to ensure adequate housing.”
In May 2012, in Oregon, a US Jury awarded two workers a compensation of $332 K for not being provided with ‘an on-site toilet.’ The workers who claimed they were forced to urinate in a bucket have been awarded $332,000 after a jury found they were fired for complaining to Oregon regulators about the lack of an onsite toilet. The men performed mechanical work at Portland International Airport.
Reportedly, the Juror said the company’s treatment of the men was ‘definitely despicable.’ The Juror also stated she and other jurors believed that having easy access to a toilet was ‘a basic human right.’
Rape is a serious issue and, back in India, ensuring a safe and secure toilet is within reach of every woman is a gargantuan task. On the importance of toilets, the Prime Minister is on the right track.