When Narendra Modi follows Jairam Ramesh in expressing a preference for toilets over temples, you know a national conversation has begun. The current issue of Outlook magazine has a cover feature on lavatories or the lack of them. Amartya Sen helped the conversation along by pointing out that Bangladesh does better, much better, in the matter of getting its citizens to do their stuff indoors. My niece, who teaches in an all-girls school run by the municipal corporation of Delhi, tells me that the school has two thousand students but no lavatories, not one. My daughter, who interned with an NGO in Assam over the summer, had stories to tell about the anxieties of outdoor defecation. Chauffeurs and security guards bellied up against service lane walls in Delhiís gated neighbourhoods are suddenly a talking point.
It was not always thus. When V.S. Naipaul famously wrote of Indians lined up by railways tracks, defecating, we werenít embarrassed, we were provoked. When Bindeshwar Pathak began his Sulabh Shauchalaya movement on Gandhiís birth centenary, and launched his campaign to build usable public lavatories, I remember thinking of him as a self-aggrandizing crank. There were many causes deemed worthy by the college-going young ó land reform, secularism, conservation óbut building or campaigning to build indoor lavatories for Indians who didnít have them (which is to say, most Indians) wasnít one of them. Crappers werenít cool.
Itís worth asking why toilets and sanitation were unfashionable for so long given the scale of our problem. India, the figures tell us, is home to more than half the worldís outdoor defecators. The old alibis ó size and poverty ó that served so well for so long, donít wilt in the face of figures that show that India is a grotesque outlier in the indoor toilet stakes. China, which is bigger than we are, has only 4 per cent of its population going outdoors. Bangladesh, which is poorer than we are, has managed to provide access to indoor toilets to 90 per cent of its people. Less than a third of all Pakistanis need to step out when they hear the call. Sri Lanka, it goes without saying, is positively first-world compared to its neighbourhood. We are the basket case of outdoor excretion, its degree zero. How did we manage to ignore the issue for as long as we did? Given the obvious price that the poor paid in terms of privacy, dignity, safety and health, what explains this absence of empathy?
There is an answer to that question that sounds like a crude simplification but isnít. That answer is caste. Indian society has been ordered and divided by rules of ritual purity and pollution for so long that it is hard for its governing class, however progressive its self-image, to empathize with people who lack the basic amenities that this class and the privileged castes that constitute it, take for granted.
There is a reason why Nehru didnít talk of toilets being the temples of modern India. The temples and totems of modern India had to be the dams and factories that we didnít have, not the toilets we (or at least everyone Nehru knew) did. Itís the same reason why Mrs Gandhiís campaign slogan was Ďroti, kapda aur makaní and not Ďmakan, khana aur pakhanaí: Indiaís elites, then as now, were much more comfortable with the rhetoric of welfare than its nitty-gritty, or (as caste had taught them in the matter of excretion), its nitty-grotty.
Actually itís a mistake to consider the absence of lavatories in isolation; it needs to be seen in the context of that other great Indian absence, primary schools. Education and sanitation are the two most spectacular failures of Indian public policy and they are joined at the hip. A ruling class, itself obsessed with education and personal hygiene, did nothing to extend these basic amenities to its poorer compatriots.
There is no rational explanation for republican Indiaís failure in the matter of primary education. All ruling classes are selfish, but most Asian ruling elites still managed to invest in mass literacy and sanitation. Virtually every Asian country in the long aftermath of decolonization made substantial investments in primary education. The result is that China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, very different countries with very different histories and political systems, have populations that are uniformly more than 90 per cent literate. India, optimistically surveyed, hovers under 75 per cent.
Why didnít Nehru follow suit? Why did he build IITs and not primary schools? The answer isnít complicated though it is hard to reconcile with our image of Nehru as a progressive statesman. He didnít commit himself to primary education because, great modernist though he was, he was also a Brahmin, an upper-caste politician who lacked both empathy and urgency when it came to understanding the permanent damage that illiteracy did to the poor. It is one of modern Indiaís more grotesque ironies that its savarna middle class, so single-mindedly obsessed with the education of its children, was blind and deaf to the basic educational needs of the majority of its fellow citizens. If we substitute education with sanitation, the same explanation serves for Indiaís lack of lavatories as well.
A map of India that graphically plots the percentage of the population that has access to lavatories, state-by-state, suggests a couple of correlations. Small states seem to do better than large ones. Also the states that have historically done well in the matter of sanitation seem to be states where a brahmanical understanding of caste isnít hegemonic, where social arrangements have traditionally been more egalitarian: Goa, Kerala, Punjab, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim, Pondicherry and so on. It isnít surprising that traditional Hindi heartland states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan do badly; what is interesting is how low down in the list states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are. There is very little partisan solace that this map offers. Narendra Modiís Gujarat and the erstwhile Left stronghold of West Bengal are level-pegging, with less than 60 per cent of their populations served by indoor toilets.
The inadequacy of lavatories in India is determined by caste/class and gender. The great Indian middle-class is unconcerned with the travails of their poor countrymen so long as their flush toilets work and since the Indian male, regardless of class, feels entitled to go pretty much where he wants to, he doesnít feel the absence of public lavatories as acutely as Indian women do. As women and the poor make their presence felt on electoral rolls and on election days, clever politicians like Jairam Ramesh and Narendra Modi will make sure that we see less and less of that reluctant human species in its natural state, the squatting Indian.