Until Recently Nobody in this Indian Village had a Toilet

(A journalist’s observations on the politics of toilets in India)

Originally published, in Dutch, on April 15 2019, in De Volkskrant. a Dutch National Newspaper. Author Ben Van Raaij, foreign editor of The Volkskrant.

Translation by Dr. Christiaan Morssink. Permission to publish the English text received on May 29, 2019. For accompanying photo’s by Marlena Walthausen, in the Dutch version, https://www.volkskrant.nl/mensen/tot-voor-kort-had-niemand-in-dit-indiase-dorp-een-wc~bbfad386/

Please see also an excellent commentary by Arun Deb, a founding board member of GWA, received on June 1, 2019. The Sanitation Decennial.

It was one of the promises of Premier Narendra Modi during his entry into the elections in 2014: Every household in India in 2019 will have its own “WC” (Water Closet/Toilet). Has he kept that promise? Not really. Hundreds of millions of Indians are still doing their business in the open air. Some even prefer it.

They literally stand everywhere. Small cements buildings, in backyards, behind houses, along ditches and fields, sometimes three, four in a row. Here in Gunjauly, a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, clear progress is made with the campaign to give every family in India a private toilet. Gunjauly is a mixed assortment of mud huts and brick houses, surrounded by mustard fields, some home even with a second floor. On loam packed dirt backyards, women pump up water and wait for buffalo until they are milked. Children gather to go to school. A very average Indian village, and yet nobody here until recently had a toilet.  In the past few months things have changed, according to the villagers. Almost all houses now have a toilet. Often built by a contractor, sometimes by the residents themselves, with subsidy from the government for bricks and cement. ‘ No one has ever given us anything, but Modi has provided for toilets ‘, says Santi, a 50 woman who is now voting on him.

It is one of the triumphs of premier Modi in the elections where 900 million voters will decide whether he will receive a new term of five years. During his inauguration in 2014 Modi promised to build 100 million WCs. The Mission Clean India (Swachh Bharat) – Each household its own WC in 2019 – was meant to put an end to the Indian tradition of ‘open defecation’; doing your business outdoors.

The Barabanki Region.
Every visitor to India knows the iconic image of people in the countryside in the morning mist with a bottle of water walking into the fields to follow the call of nature. Or of slum dwellers flocking and squatting along the railway line, men on one side, women on the other.
Open defecation is unhygienic and unhealthy. Every year in India more than 600,000 people, especially children, die from poor sanitation induced diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid. 

But for women and girls it is also downright unsafe. To reduce embarrassment, they prefer to go early morning or late at night in the dark, and then run risk of sexual harassment or worse.  There are important stories of women who won’t accept it anymore. Sangeeta Mali from Rajasthan filed for divorce in 2015 because of ‘mental torture’ because her husband did not take care of a toilet. As a bride, Anita Narre refused to enter her husband’s home until he built a toilet for her; in 2017 her story made it into a Bollywood film (Toilet: a Love Story).

Governments ignored the sanitation problem for decades. Until Modi made sanitation a major part of his campaign (next to the campaigns to provide rural communities safe drinking water, electricity, and clean LPG-fuel for cooking). ‘First we must we build WCs, before we build temples, he said at the kickoff of his plans to make the whole of India ‘open defecation free’ b 2019.  According to Modi the Clean India-Campaign is a resounding success. Recently he claimed that since he took office 90 million of the targeted 100 million WC’s are built. Now 90 percent of Indians have access to a toilet, compared to 40 percent in 2014.

Government data from 2018 seem to confirm Modi’s claim. However, independent research of the Indian Countryside, according to the BBC, showed that last year at most 77 percent of the People had access to a toilet. Of those lucky ones, 93 percent used their toilet regularly.
But with building toilets you have cleared the job. Many toilets recently built don’t operate well. An official Inspection some years ago showed that a quarter of all wc’s in public schools were defect. And not all operational wc’s are used. When one, in the countryside, opens a WC- door, he or she may find it full of potatoes or rice.

In Jankipuram, a small illegal slum along the tracks in Lucknow, the quickly growing capital of Uttar Pradesh, the urban government built a new block of toilets, that still doesn’t work after many months. So, a homeless family has made it into a dwelling. In the small hall, laundry hangs to dry, in the WC’s people placed their mattresses. 

“We have permission to live here,” says Gita, a shy female of 22 with a child. They hope that the WC’s will stay dysfunctional, otherwise they will have to leave.

“But where do you defecate now?”

“The men anywhere, we women over there.” She points to the canal on the other side of the road, where provisional boxes are created, made of branches and rags.

Feces Cleaners
As long as large numbers of Indians must do without piped water and sewage systems, latrines are emptied, by hand, by “feces diggers.” There are about seven hundred thousand people doing this work. All outcast dalits, usually women. Their craft, officially long prohibited, is not only nasty but also dangerous. Over the last ten year at least 1800 latrine diggers and sewage workers suffocated in toxic fumes. Modi, who promised to ban feces digging simultaneously with open defecation during the year he was campaigning, honored the diggers during the large Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela by washing the feet of some. Always that symbolism, says Khalid Chaudhry of the NGO Action Aid.

“Sanitation is a class problem, but that is not addressed. They only build as many WC’s as possible.”

Religious and cultural objections are sometimes interfering with the use of WC’s.

“Open defecation is a misunderstood ancient form of hygiene”, wrote Indian anthropologist Smita Yadav last year in The Guardian. “It’s done in designated locations, and always followed by a shower. For many Indians it is unclean to have a toilet in or near a house where crops are stored and eaten, where prayers are held. Open defecation keeps dirty odors outside.”

According to critics the Clean India-Campaign is too focused on building as many as possible WC’s.

“It is too much about quantity and too little about quality. A successful introduction and acceptance of WC’s in the countryside requires foremost a change in mentality,” says Khalid Chaudhry, head of the NGO Action Aid in Lucknow. “You first must have people learn to see that WC’s are really more hygienic and healthier. And then start building WC’s.”

Daily Life in Gunjauly.
Modi’s approach, as shown in Gunjauly, also leads to abuse, because of something called a toilet scam. There are way too many WC’s in this village. On one of the compounds, between some buffaloes, there are four toilet booths.

“Last year I built and tiled it, says the owner’s son Sanjay (25). Using grants from the government, 12.000 rupees (154 euro) for each toilet. We not really needed them,” he explained after some nudging, “but yes, we could get the money, so why not?”

Inspection of the new WC’s in Gunjauly points to a still greater problem: they are all standard numbered cement outhouses with a porcelain squat toilet above a hole in the ground. They have no drainage. Hence, they are simply latrines, holes in the ground where the feces accumulate into composting, until the hole is full. That is not without risks. Often WC’s in the villages are really close to a water source, usually a hand pump; so close that germs can pollute the water source, surely during the monsoons. The general rule is to keep at least 10 meters distance between toilet and pump, but on the compounds there usually is no space for that practice, or isolate the latrines, but that happens rarely.

“The building of millions WC’s is pointless if there is no running water,” says Chaudhry of Action Aid. “It’s pure symbolism. The only solution is to build water supplies and sewage systems, but that is future music.”

Is Modi’s campaign Clean India nevertheless successful? Friend and foe agree that much progress is made, but the goals have not been reached. In 2017, half of the Indian population still uses the outdoors to defecate. Today 27 of the 36 states are “free of outside defecating.” But that says little. Gujarat, declared “clean” at the end of 2017, appeared to have, a year later, 29% of the houses without a toilet. And research in January of this year in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan in Uttar Pradesh revealed that a quarter of the people who have latrines still poop outside.

In many villages therefore little has changed. Like in Churghutawa, a shabby hamlet of lower castes near Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. While officially the largest part of the state is free of outside defecation, of the hundreds of households in this village only four of five have a WC. According to some, residents blame the chosen village head, the Pradhan, who did not represent the well when negotiating with higher authorities.

No WC’s to be found as well in Sumamau Purwa, a slum in Lucknow populated by Muslim migrants from Assam, who make a living with sorting garbage for recycling. The residents pay rent to the owner of the area, but they have no other facilities and only one water source and one illegal electrical connection.

“In our old villages in Assam they get WC’s from Mr. Modi, but not here, as this is private terrain,” says spokesman Hussain Ali.

Daily Life in Sumamau Purwa.
Clean India therefore seems to be a characteristic example of the skillful way by which Narendra Modi markets the entire modernizing project ‘New India’: With ambitious promises – Create 2.5 Million New jobs each year, Double the incomes of farmers by 2022, Clean the holy river Ganges in 2020, Give every Indian family their own toilet – they all carry a high level of propagandistic symbolism.  The opposition Congress Party additionally disputes that Modi and the BJP were the designers of the sanitation project.

Clean India was a plan of the Congress party,” says Fatima Rafat at the party’s offices in Lucknow. “Modi took it over in 2014 and changed the name (from Nirmal Bharat to Swachh Bharat) and then claimed the honor. Modi has stolen more projects from us, such as our job creation plans or our loan program for small companies.”

Will Modi’s machinations succeed? Are all grateful toilet owners in the coming weeks going to vote for the man who made them happy? Nasrin (35) in the slum Jankipuram in Lucknow starts to laugh with scorn. The newest toilet block doesn’t work and is too far, says the mother of five. Why doesn’t Modi provide many more toilets? And the only hand pump in the slum fails often.

“The other day a politician came and wanted to give us money if we were going to vote. Well, if they really are going to do something for us, THEN we go and vote!”
(note: Narendra Modi won the elections and will be India’s political leader for the next five years.)

Want to learn more about WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene — issues?  Join us on Saturday, October 9th from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for our 14th annual conference.  This year’s theme is “Securing the Green to Keep it Clean — Funding for Sustainable Sanitation.”  See you there!


Dr. Morssink is the President of the Global Water Alliance and his interests are as wide-ranging and flowing as water itself, such as: the effects of the built environment on health, the elimination of health disparities, urban farming to end hunger, and the campaign to ban and clear landmines and cluster bombs in communities around the world. Water is his first love.