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TAKING THE AIR

Controversy rages over a basic issue of Indian lifestyle. Since it is politicians that have raised the ruckus, the common man may be inclined to dismiss it as another example of their word games. But he would be well advised to take notice of it, for it can affect his freedom. If they are not brought quickly under control, a freedom he has enjoyed ever since he came to India — from Africa or Aryabhoomi or wherever — may be in danger. At a crucial time in the morning, he may no longer be able to breathe the air of freedom and enjoy the sight of waning stars.

The minister for rural development is on the move; following in the footsteps of his ancient adversary, Lal Krishna Advani, he is on a yatra. But instead of setting off from one of the ancient temples, he began his journey from Sevagram, Gandhi’s last ashram. That may have inspired him to make his remark, that toilets are more important than temples. The Mahatma would have gone further. He did not enter a temple in his later life. His followers could practise religion in any way they wished, but there was no structure devoted to such practices in the ashrams. He held public prayer meetings, in which there were readings from Hindu, Muslim and Christian scriptures, in the open. For him, temples were verboten, because many did not permit untouchables to enter. Because of his campaign, many provinces and princely states passed laws forbidding temple-entry restrictions; but they did not change his mind. For a Gandhian, temples are not unimportant: they are irrelevant. If he also wants to court voters, as Congressmen do, he cannot advertise his boycott of temples. But comparing temples and toilets should be as taboo to him as comparing India and Pakistan once was.

Those with a glib tongue often think that they can change the world by talking enough. Jairam Ramesh is probably not one of those; but he should ask himself whether he is not talking too much and doing too little. For his ministry has a budget of Rs 73,000 crore; other ministries are spending at least twice as much. That comes to Rs 3,000 per villager, or Rs 15,000 per family. That is more than enough to build a toilet. The reason why villagers continue to aromatize rural environs may be that their governments have too many priorities and cannot concentrate on the single objective of indoor defecation. They have not been entirely neglectful; they have built some toilets. But they are often not used because there is not enough water, without which they become unbearable. Governments have invested heavily in tubewells, thanks to which, water supply has become more reliable in villages. But they have not linked water supply to toilets and drainage. They would do well to be less single-minded.