Thursday, February 22, 2007

We need Toilets not Temples - Why are we dirty people?

Mark Twain once said about India that anything that can be done by man or God, has been done in this land . In one of discussions on India Poised, Jaggi Vasudev said an interesting thing that "in all the talk (in India) about divinity and gretness of country we have forgotten about humanity. At every street corner we have built temples not toilets. A pee is more important than a prayer. It is certainly more compelling than a prayer".

We Indians are perhaps dirtiest people in world. Our cities look like extended slums, towns are filthy dumps and villages often reek of excreta. It is said that poverty breeds filth and it could be true. But in our country there is another problem. The problem in head. The problem of mindset and problem of habit and perhaps culture. We just dont want to live in clean places. I have seen many and I really mean many well educated, well read and well traveled people who just don’t think for a moment before littering in public places. Right outside my office, employees of at least 3 IT companies in vicinity can be seen smoking and having tea in plastic cups which they throw right there on road after they are finished. There is no dustbin there but it doesn't occur to any of them to take the empty cup back to office and throw in bin.

In "Area of Darkness" V.S. Naipaul gives an extremely dark account of India and details how dirty the country was. As a foreigner of Indian roots (his father migrated to Africa and Naipaul studied in London) Naipaul was shocked to see how dirty people in his "homeland” were. His account of India (in decades of 60 and 70s) was deeply pessimistic and I would say he was right on many fronts. Naipaul in his books writes that elsewhere in world approach to villages through countryside is a pleasant experience but not in India where visitor to villages is welcomed by smell of human excreta. He observed it in decades of 70s but it could be still true in most of villages in India. In my own village, an empty ground just outside the village was used as an open, defecation area till around few years back. It is only in recent years that villagers started building toilets in their houses (but then Himachal is comparatively far more progressive state than most of other states). Around 80% of diseases in our country are caused by drinking water contaminated by human waste. Less than 30% of India's population have toilets in their homes. Many projects undertaken to provide clean toilets in villages have failed because villagers could not take to new habit of using toilets within their homes and they promptly converted their toilets into storage rooms. Considering population growth, it is estimated that it would take 200 years for every Indian to have access to a toilet. India is also perhaps only country in world where defecating is also a social activity. One just needs to sit beside the window during early morning train journey to see hordes of men and women defecating in groups along the rail road. Even in large cities, one can see people defecating and chatting at the same time right beside a busy road (I see that every day while traveling to office). I sometime wonder what those guys talk while indulging in an activity which I thought need some silence and privacy. Even dog after defecating buries its waste under sand but not these people. They never clean their own waste. We never clean our own waste.

It is worth noting that we were not always like this. It is ironical that in around 3000 BC (or was it 1500 BC!!) in Harappa and Mohanjodaro there were towns many hundred miles away from each other but built in similar grid fashion with immaculate streets and sophisticated drainage system for those times. Those people were perhaps one of first town planners and theylived right here on our own land. How did we forget that art? We are in year 2007 AD and have a look at our towns now and look at the wasted state our waste management systems are. Al-Jahiz 9th century Muslim historian writes: "The Hindus excel in astrology, mathematics, medicine and in various other sciences. They have developed to perfection arts like sculpture, painting, and architecture. They have collections of poetry, philosophy, literature and science of morals. From India we received the book called Kalilah wa Dimnah. These people have judgment and are brave. They posses the virtues of cleanliness and purity. Contemplation has originated with them." Abdullah Wassaf, writing in the 14th century A.D. says of India in his history book, Tazjiyatul Amsar: " India, according to the concurrent opinion of all writers, is the most agreeable abode on earth and the most pleasant quarter of the world. Its dust is purer than air and its air is purer than purity itself: Its delightful plains resemble the garden of paradise.

So what went wrong? Why are we so dirty now? One is tempted to say that it is because of our bloated population and unending poverty or some might say it is becuase we were enslaved (ha ha)!!. Yes they are some of reasons but I think we have a bigger cultural problem as the cause. In a self induced illusion of greatness of Indian civilization, we never see apparent things. We are so taken in by our self belief in our own greatness that we don’t introspect and don’t think that there could be anything wrong with us. It is utterly shocking that in a country where Gods rules every minute of existence for most of people, our religious places are often dirty. Our religion had always emphasized importance of spirit over matter. Inner beauty over outer physical appearance. It proclaimed that world we see is a "maya" or illusion and aim of human life is to rise above it and attain salvation. The world we see is temporary and we should not be attached to it. I think somewhere deeper in an Indian’s consciousness, it is this metaphysical idea of life that rules and which makes him to neglect his outer world. As such there is nothing wrong with this notion of spirit over matter but not many people care, understand or are equipped to understand its deeper meaning. And then the atrocious Caste system which is like a blot on our culture, was so corrupted over centuries that cleaning as a task became function of a lesser caste. Brahmins and upper caste considered it impure to clean. Tasks in society were structured in hierarchy with menial tasks, considered low, assigned to lower classes. This mentality of considering menial tasks as lower than other tasks is still wide spread in our country). Anybody who is student of Indian culture soon discovers that this is a land of some of most contrasting and amazing paradoxes. Even in context of cleanliness, it is surprising to know that in Hindu tradition cleanliness is considered extremely important but tasks of cleaning is not and is considered impure. How strange is that!! How can we be clean if act of cleaning is considered lower and impure task? And some of our ideas about impurity are equally ludicrous. For example, in many temples in our country, women while menstruating are not allowed inside since they are considered unclean and impure. Obviously it was an idea propagated by male dominated, Brahmins ruled society. Gandhi during freedom movement had understood this and he made attempts to make people realize importance of cleanliness. He cleaned his own toilet and encouraged upper caste people in his ashram to clean toilets. “It filled me with agony to see people performing natural functions on the thoroughfares and river banks, when they could easily have gone a little farther away from public haunts," Gandhi wrote in his autobiography of a 1915 visit to the Ganges River. It was corruption of Brahmincal Hinduism and rigidity of caste system during later years of our civilization that changed attitudes and practices around disposal of human waste in specific and cleanliness in general. It is this cultural mindset which is at bottom of causes of our unclean, dirty habits.

It takes many many years to change habits when they originate from deeper cultural causes. A person who is highly educated might not defecate in open but he would not find it wrong to litter at public places since after all cleaning is not his function but somebody else’s. Coupled with poorest civic sense that we Indians have, one can see why our cities, towns and villages are so dirty. Makes me wonder why we have such poor civic sense?


Tarun Chandel said...

This is a really good post, even I was thinking about writing on similar lines.

On road in front of my house, every morning I see cleaners cleaning the whole road. In the evening there are hoards of hawkers selling vegetables just throw the waste there and leave. Another one I noticed was at the railway stations, there were cleaners cleaning the platform, mopping away all the waste and spits and as soon as he turned back the whole place was again just the same. There are many such instances and all of us have witnessed them.

I think the problem lies in not taking the ownership for our surroundings. No body treats a city, a locality, a park, a station, a road as their own. "Government should take care of this" we have this hard coded into our system. They do take care of it, they employ cleaners and have bought very expensive systems but they can’t keep running behind everyone and picking up whatever you throw. There are people who will throw waste at the most unreachable places. People go for trekking and sight seeing and leave all the waste their. How can one expect that government will get it cleaned?

Think about it from a simple economic view. How much will it cost you if you throw waste at proper places? Hardly, HARDLY anything, now how much does it cost government to get it cleaned from all the places we keep littering? A huge amount. If we can take personal responsibility and take ownership of our city, our locality, or just our actions, our waste, we will not only be able to keep the surroundings clean and healthy but will save a lot of money which van be utilized for other important things.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I hope you get this comment.

This is very interesting post especially when an indian person admits the filth problem in India and address the issue.

I am a resident of Jackson Heights, New York where there are two streets called Little India. In that area, lots of non-indian residents complain the litter problem. But people are having a difficulty to discuss this issue openly because it is sensitive cultural issue.

There is a online community forum for Jackson heights residents and there is a discussion going on about this litter problem in little india. I am wondering if you are interested in posting your prospective as an indian who recognize the problem. The address is

Thank you very much

Anonymous said...

I agree
I would rather clean the arse of an openly defecating woman than take her to a temple.

Anonymous said...

A few days ago in Jamshedpur I was coming home in the afternoon when I saw an aged woman standing like a cow on the gutter by road and defecating.
You could actually see her stuff.
Where is our privacy gone?

contentious said...

Nice post. This is something that "tortures" me, truely. I think the prime culprit is our upbringing and lack of a sense of accountability for the way we abuse our environment . We dont take pride in our surroundings and the only way we exhibit civic responsibilty is thru the whip of fear of being shamed or of punitive action. And instead of loading the administration with the additional job of policing we should empower a gp of citizens who will take on the task of penalizing (with a framework) the offenders.

Anonymous said...

Actually if U ever got to Jamshedpur along the banks of the Subarnarekha at dusk U will find women along the bushes with pails of water.They are actually dumping their "gold".
Somehow as it is a daily unavoidable route for me I have got used to their "fragrance".
But the fact of the matter is we need at least a couple of good toilets down here at J'Pur!!!

Gaurav said...

well @anonymous what you have described about Subarnarekha , is something one can witness all over rural India. In fact just sit around the window in early morning train travel anywhere in India, and you more or less would be witness to these scenes.

I guess we need more than couple of toilets. We need lots of toilets along with roti, kapda or makan.

Anonymous said...

I have decide that the Govt. should promote newer toilet designs to be deployed all across the countryside.That way people can actually reduce their outdoor sojourns....
Also I strongly feel that in India we all should start using toilet paper and help water conservancy especially the ladies in the middle class homes.They tend to waste a lot of water in cooking,washing and their personal ablutions.

Anonymous said...

I live in an area of a metro where there's a severe water scarcity.
We are six members in our family(my father keeps on travelling frequently) and I live with my mom,two aunts and one cousin sister.
We've adopted TP an year back and it does save a lot water.Initially we were reluctant though but now we are used to it.

Anonymous said...

Hey anyone home?
Pse reply 2 mah comment man!!!

Swaha Sengupta said...

Well I agree with this anonymous guy.
As a mother of two in Kolkata we do have lot of water requirement.
We used to have a water crises but as a busy mother I can't wait cos the children have to got to school and my husband has to got to office etc.
So I have started watre conservancy and it works.
And yea buying toilet paper is embarrassing for a lady in India as the shopkeepers give sly smiles.So I thank the newspaper guys for their help!!!

Gaurav said...

Well, either you conserve water or the paper, but either ways,you gotta clean up;)

Vikram said...

Yes, Indians need to change and fast.

Anonymous said...

indian woman waste a lot of water

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