India as of 2014, had 600 million public defecators. Uttar Pradesh as a state of India holds a high share in the number of people engaging in open defecation. Census 2011 tells us that only 32% of the Indian rural households had toilets.
This is indeed a single story. What might be a problem for me may not necessarily be a problem for another. Ten months back when I came to Kantain, of all problems, I never thought bathrooms would be a big problem. I had read about the lack of toilets and bathing spaces in rural areas but somehow did not expect this in reality when I came to this village. It is only a problem for a person who comes from outside, or more specifically from the urban spaces. The people of the rural community seem to have no problem with it. As I managed to stay at a place with a proper bathroom in place, I never thought that it was an issue. No one spoke about it as a concern.
It was not until the 4th month into my work I realized that people barely used toilets. Even the wealthier section of the village did not have any.
On asking school students about it, they would casually say, “No. We do not have toilets.” When I asked them if it was a problem and was it not inconvenient to not have toilets at home, they told me that it did not really bother them as they are used to not having toilets since birth. One of them jokingly remarked that “It would be so suffocating to use a toilet with four walls. Doing it in the fields makes us feel so fresh”. I didn’t know how to react. All of them are aware of the several water-borne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, jaundice, and typhoid. May of them also knew that a major reason for the high frequency of such diseases in their village, especially during the rainy season, is open defecation. Yet, it has been so difficult to bring a change in the attitude of people.
Under the Swachh Bharat Mission – Gramin, the government has put in place a scheme where every rural household without a toilet is provided a monetary benefit of Rs. 12,000, six thousand before constructing the toilet and six thousand after photographic evidence of the toilet being constructed is submitted. For this reason, in the past few years, a huge number of toilets have been built in the villages. According to NARSS 2017-18, 6.5 crore toilets have been built across rural India. However, several rural households in my field area face a problem even after getting this subsidy. Adding this to the initial subsidy of six thousand rupees, people do not have enough to spend on building a toilet. Hence, the construction is halfway and so is their subsidy. This complaint at times may not be genuine.
Some people do not see the toilet as a good investment and do not think that it is worth spending their savings on it.
The number of toilets in rural areas do not mean that there will be a reduction in the rate of open defecation. Even after building them, people do not use them regularly. Many associate toilet construction with lack of hygiene at home.
Read: The Polluted Notion of Purity
In some cases, toilet here is not considered as something clean. Building a toilet near the house is not seen to be a pure thing and the question of building it inside the house is just off limits. A group of girls once asked me about where I go to use the toilet. I told them that I have one in my room. They were so surprised by this idea that they even came over to see how a toilet could be built within a house, attached to the room. Keeping this situation in mind, it is high time that efforts are made towards making people more aware, which may lead to a change in their behaviour. Societal norms and the fear of what others might think, play a huge role here. Would not they think that this family has no sense of hygiene? The mindset of people is such that it affects each and every family in the village.
During the beginning years of Swarachana School, in Kantain- Amberpur, one of the problems that the administration faced was building toilets in the school. After some resistance from the parents, the toilets were finally built. On observing students in the school, one can say that more children use toilets in the last few periods so that they do not have to go to the fields immediately after school hours. The new generation in this village definitely has become more conscious than the youth and older people.
Despite all these odds, the places where women or men defecate do not have any caste barriers. There are only gender-specific spaces. Women go to the fields extremely early in the morning or after the male members have set out for work. This is where dignity intersects with the scenario, by defecating openly when male members are not around. However, the concept of dignity does not apply if you can use a toilet which covers you from all sides.
Along with building toilets, there should be efforts towards collective behavioural change in the rural space. People should be made more aware of the harmful effects of open defecation and be told how the toilets are not ‘dirty’. Toilets will make their surroundings cleaner and safer for the entire community. Building functional toilets would be of great help for adolescent girls specially when they are menstruating. The overall impact of building and using toilets should be explained in great length regularly. This will make people conscious about the problem and make them aware of a situation which only they can improve by themselves.
Changing human behaviour is tricky. While I may know all the benefits of eating healthy and I can afford it, I’ll drool over the oily chola bhaturas every other day. That’s a small example but the point is that we can find many such examples in our own lives. Do you think that awareness about the benefits of a toilet will help here, or anything else can/should be done? If on one hand, people don’t see open defecation as a problem, should we, as outsiders, even think of a solution? As you may have guessed, even I don’t have an answer but want to know your thoughts further.
Changing human behaviour through awareness or education sure is difficult. However, we exhibit monkey behaviour. We tend to copy things, out of peer pressure and sometimes this can be put to good use. If enough people (diffusion of innovation curve) do something, the rest might just follow. What do you think?
Peer pressure or pressure from the community will definitely bring in change because here a lot of the problems exist because the community accepts or rejects it.