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 Delhi’s 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 weren’t embarrassed, we were provoked. When Bindeshwar Pathak began his Sulabh Shauchalaya movement on Gandhi’s 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 — land reform, secularism, conservation —but building or campaigning to build indoor lavatories for Indians who didn’t have them (which is to say, most Indians) wasn’t one of them. Crappers weren’t cool.
It’s 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 world’s outdoor defecators. The old alibis — size and poverty — that served so well for so long, don’t 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 isn’t. 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 didn’t 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 didn’t have, not the toilets we (or at least everyone Nehru knew) did. It’s the same reason why Mrs Gandhi’s campaign slogan was ‘roti, kapda aur makan’ and not ‘makan, khana aur pakhana’: India’s 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 it’s 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 India’s 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.