Few things make one flinch like travelling on an early-morning Indian train and seeing people relieve themselves beside the tracks. Seeing this most private act performed in public triggers spasms of revulsion.
Sometimes, when they hear the train approaching, these poor squatting individuals scuttle quickly into a nearby bush in a hopeless attempt to hide their backsides – and their shame.
In Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, a slum dweller who lives near the tracks memorizes the railway schedule to avoid doing his business when a train is likely to hurtle by.
The fact that millions of Indians are forced to defecate in the open because they lack of toilets in their homes should be the cause of profound mortification for the nation. Yet some of the reactions to Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh’s recent remark that India needs toilets more than temples were bizarre.
The comment was meant as a gibe to make people think. If Indians can get together to raise money to build tiny temples everywhere – on the streets, in forests, on remote mountainsides – why can’t they get together to build toilets?
His own party, the Indian National Congress, has given Mr. Ramesh a wide berth. Out of fear that he might have offended Hindu voters, the party stated: “We respect the sanctity of every religious place irrespective of the community it belongs to.”
Members of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad organization, which gets excited about cow worship and the wonderful properties of cow dung and urine, protested outside Mr. Ramesh’s house. Only in India, surely, can such a spectacularly self-evident assertion actually find dissenters.
What are they objecting to? Mentioning the word “temple” in the same breath as “toilets”? Or do they believe there should indeed be more temples than toilets? Or – and this is most likely – do they resent Mr. Ramesh singling out temples rather than mosques or churches? It’s obvious, though, that Mr. Ramesh mentioned temples simply because there are many more Hindus in India than there are Muslims or Christians.
Most people know that India has more cellphones than toilets, but it was good that Mr. Ramesh offered yet another bold juxtaposition. The 600 million Indians who are forced to defecate in the open are being deprived of their dignity.
Women suffer more than men because the average Indian male thinks nothing of turning every single public space into a urinal, whereas women have to control themselves until they reach a public toilet – at great risk to their bladders.
In rural India, the risk of infection and illness from open defecation is very high, with millions of children suffering from diarrhea every year.
While he was on the subject, Mr. Ramesh should have pointed out the state of public toilets. Indians are generally meticulous in their personal hygiene, but the filth and stench of public toilets are beyond description.
Indians were wounded by this line in V.S. Naipaul’s travelogue An Area of Darkness, published in 1964: “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the riverbanks.”
The line is full of hatred and contempt. It humiliates people whose wretched poverty leaves them no choice. But the fact remains that building toilets has not been a priority for any government or community.
Earlier this year, Mr. Ramesh called India the world capital of open defecation. “It is a matter of shame, anguish, sorrow and anger,” he said. This shame will continue until all Indians have a toilet in their homes.