Guest Post by ARDHENDU SEN
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has many components but the main thrust is on the building of new toilets, both public and private. Why is it that we have so few toilets so many decades after independence? Many would blame the policy paralysis of the UPA II government and there is no denying the truth in that charge. Many others would go back decades and ask if any government before the present one ever paid adequate attention to such important social problems. Looking back into our hoary past, we come across an important ancient cause of our present misfortune.
It is now a well-known fact that India had aircrafts and spacecrafts long before other nations could even conceive of flying. The western educated, liberal (meaning Nehruvian) sceptic has only to visit the official website of the Indian Science Congress to convince herself of this. We know about one of these crafts in some detail because the 1903 edition of an old paper by one Rishi Bhardwaj has survived. The paper describes a fairly large craft, sixty feet by sixty feet that could not only fly in air but was suitable for interplanetary travel. This huge flying machine like that must have carried hundreds of people.
It is logical to assume that these crafts were fitted with chemical toilets. An aeroplane may do without one for a while but a spacecraft cannot because there is no force of gravity to help us get rid of the stuff. Ask Sunita Williams and she would be happy to explain it to you.
Of course it is inconceivable that a people used to chemical toilets during their travels would not use the ordinary garden variety in their houses and public places. It is relevant to note that neither Susruta nor Charaka was greatly exercised about gastero-enteric diseases. Unlike today, this was not an issue in emperor Ashoka’s India. We can therefore conclude that the wonder that was India had hundreds of thousands of toilets.
So where did these toilets disappear?
Well, not all of them have disappeared. The Sulabh museum in Delhi has toilets 2500 years old. Some toilets have been found at Harappan sites. Buddhist monks used to fashion their own toilets out of stone; many of these are still visible in monastery ruins. But it is true that most of them have disappeared.
Is it possible that the invaders from Central Asia who sacked the sacred Somnath and hundred other temples also destroyed our toilets? Let us marshall the evidence in support of such a hypothesis.
Several surveys have established that the number of toilets in south India far exceeds that in the north. South Indians also make more use of existing toilets. This strongly supports our hypothesis that the carnage in north and west India turned toilets into liabilities rather than assets. One sees the remnants of that feeling even now, in the form of a deep wound in our collective unconscious. This has shown up in statements like, ‘We need more toilets than temples’ attributed to a former Union Minister. It would have been equally true to say “We need more toilets than PVRs” or “We need more toilets than flyovers”. So what made him think of temples? This association of ideas goes back a long way – it should not be dismissed lightly.
Admittedly, this is speculative but by God’s grace we now have a rejuvenated Council for Historical Research that has set a new agenda for itself. It is more probable now than ever before that the historical record will be set right.
More than funds or intense supervision, a successful abhiyan needs acceptance by the people. Our Prime Minister never fails to remind us that concepts casually borrowed from the west – such as Marxism – have not done well on Indian soil. Indians will accept toilets wholeheartedly once they know that it’s an ancient Indian concept.
Hindu kings, whenever and wherever they could, strove to revive the toilet and promote its public use. The toilet museum in Delhi has several exhibits testifying to their efforts. There is one called the ‘Rajghat toilet’. This is from Rajghat, Varanasi where Hindu kings ruled before the British came. With such history to back it up, Varanasi can easily serve as a rashtraguru, a margdarshak for the rest of the country in the matters of sanitation and public health.
One of the Tata Trusts has been helping poor weavers in the Rajghat area by building toilets for them. An international philanthropic foundation, almost a household name in India, was also contacted for help in this effort. It showed some interest to begin with but backed out when they found that the area was remote. Did they think that remoteness would increase the cost of building the toilets and make subsequent supervision more difficult? No, that was not the problem. They thought the village was ‘out of the way’ and very few people – people who matter – would ever see what the Foundation had accomplished.
This is a problem that we need to address. The ‘PPP’ model for the swachh bharat abhiyan may be undermined unless we add another ‘P’ to it – namely, publicity. Luckily for us, our government has formidable expertise in this area.
Ardhendu Sen is a retired civil servant.