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Toilet and the idea of a toilet
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Government officials and urban elites remain baffled by widespread open defecation despite several programmes and high subsidies to end the practice. Isn’t it time they think beyond aesthetics and hygiene and instead focus on psychology?

That mobile phones outnumber toilets in the country is unlikely to change anytime soon if new phone designs continue to be greeted with typical fervour. Conversely, even if toilet designs were to outnumber the surge of new mobiles the situation may not tilt in favour of toilets either. Simply put, there is toilet and then there is an idea of a toilet between which the Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh can hardly make a distinction.   

The minister may not have lost his sanity, as many believe, by prioritizing toilets over temples and by provoking would-be brides to demand toilets before tying the nuptial knot. Much to the displeasure of temple-worshipper on one extreme and would-be groom on the other, the minister has raised right kind of noise to bring toilet back on the national agenda. Will this noise translate into signal for 638 million people without the virtues of a toilet is the question?

With a vast majority of countrymen having a field day and an equally large number of women folk having a night out for private conveniences, getting them into the closet has remained an exercise in futility. While his predecessor had set year 2012 as an end to the national shame, Jairam had not only to confront the failed legacy but had to push the deadline to 2017. The recent Nirmal Bharat Yatra, from Sewagram to Betia, has been a step towards the new timeline!

While his predecessor had set year 2012 as an end to the national shame, Jairam had not only to confront the failed legacy but had to push the deadline to 2017.

Whosoever has been at the helm, toilets have continued to remain the ministers objects of desire than that of the intended user. Even support by the state hasnt been able to lure the open defecators, who have acted instead as defectors to improving our abysmal statistics. Whether or not toilet subsidy reaches the targeted, at Rs 10,000 apiece for a family toilet there is no less than Rs 1.3 billion on offer nationwide at this point in time. There are hardly any takers, however!

Levels of sanitation illiteracy remain so deep as to beggar belief after six decades years of accumulating evidence that all is not well with the way we have gone about correcting the dirty picture. A little known political and business daily from Odisha raised a stink recently when it reported that as many as 45 per cent toilets in the state exist only on paper. It would be erroneous to imagine that the state is alone in building toilets on paper!

Whether or not can toilets be the cause for corruption is not as big an issue in an era of financial scams as the secular nature of continuing public empathy towards squatting. Never has open defecation triggered any caste or class strife, as if appropriating public space for conducting private action has been sacrosanct. For millions, easing in public seems a democratic decree.

Without doubt, it is not toilet but the idea of a toilet that has yet to sink into the minds of millions. If poor squatters can afford a piece of mobile which they continue to upgrade every so often, it is hard to imagine why they would not avail state subsidy for investing on brick and mortar for creating a squattie that they can call their own? Why toilet is not part of their aspiration as much as a mobile is? Isnt a mobile phone more potent than the idea of a toilet!

Unlike a mobile phone, the toilet is a focus of intense emotions, unseemly interests and strange afflictions that is rarely captured in targeted toilet promotion program. Some of the early psychoanalysts wrote that there is actually a deep feeling among people that they might be losing something inside a toilet. Celebrated author V S Naipaul has put it a bit differently: Indians prefer open defecation to avoid the fear of claustrophobia within a closet.

If people can engage themselves gainfully in a toilet, their chance of looking for and staying inside a toilet increases appreciably!

Is that the reason people carry reading material in a loo? Anecdotally, people might say that they do so because its a quiet space and they have lots of time in a toilet. In reality, however, it is just to avoid being alone in the toilet and to help erase the fear of having lost something. In his recent book, Psychology in the Bathroom, Nick Haslam argues that sensory faculties of humans need engagement of some kind in isolation, be it the confines of a toilet or darkness of a theatre.

Bathroom psychology as a subject has come handy for marketing firms in recent years. If people can engage themselves gainfully in a toilet, their chance of looking for and staying inside a toilet increases appreciably! A recent survey found that three quarters of people with mobile phones admit to using it in the toilet and one quarter say they dont go to toilet without theirs. Does it not tell us about peoples dependence on technology than their dubious toilet habits?

Technologys invasion of the lavatory offers a win-win situation for both. Not only are mobile phones getting slimmer and easy to handle, iPads are getting smaller in size on purpose too. Most of the devices are being designed to replace printed matter when it comes to the toilet. An interesting website called the International Centre for Bathroom Etiquette provides perceptive backdrop for technology to innovate for the toilet. And it is happening!

This and much more, the idea of toilet is more than just a toilet. It is indeed a blessing in disguise that there are more mobile phones than toilets in this country. Because once you have a mobile in hand, a toilet has to be the next best thing to happen. After all, people need privacy of a toilet to make the best use of their mobile phone and vice versa. It wont be a surprise if a typical bride has first preference for a mobile. It is empowering. A toilet can only add on!

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Human Development  > Water and Sanitation > Access to improved Sanitation

Nature's call isn't a dial away
Friday, April 30, 2010

A recent UN report expresses surprise that India has more mobile phones than toilets but the fact remains that the issue of sanitation in India is more complex than viewed from the western perspective.
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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