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Saturday, November 24, 2001

She hurries-on before the sun is up or waits until dusk to avoid being seen by a host of passers by. Even at that time there is an occasional late returner or a bicycle rider passing by, when she instinctively stands up and covers her face in shame. Such is the plight of every young bride in villages of India. Our thousands of years’ old Indian civilization while touching on every facet of life seems to have strangely passed by one vital area – the scourge of having to relieve in public. Our reams of treatise on modesty and virtue strangely contrast with the debasing and undignified practice of defecating and relieving ourselves in public. Why is this practice given sanction in India? One historic reason often cited is our population and poverty that prevented any money being allocated by the state towards this basic amenity. Whatever the historic reasons, it is incumbent now on the governments of the day to provide this civic facility to the citizen, as a matter of basic dignity. How can one expect a person to conduct himself with self-respect and dignity if he is denied even the facility to defecate in private? It is also a problem of health and hygiene. A problem for not only the people inhabiting bastis but also the people in posh neighbourhoods – one can’t even drink a drop of water right off the tap. 70% of the households in India are without toilets. If we zero in on Hyderabad there would be about 50% households (about 3.5 lakh) without toilets. All it requires the government of AP to provide every household with a toilet is approximately Rs.150-200 crores, a mere two days expenditure of the state. These are not numbers off my hat. In my village, with government support we helped build 408 toilets at an average cost of under Rs 3000/-. We forfeit all claim to being front runners of the 21st century when we do precious little to stop this unhygienic and undignified practice.

While the rural and urban poor suffer from lack of toilets, the city and town dwellers (mostly men) with available facilities also seem to be afflicted with this urge to relieve themselves in public against the nearest available wall. The argument extended here is lack of public toilets. While not absolving the government of its responsibility, it is necessary to bring such uncivic behaviour to book. It is time the authorities levied stiff penalties on such public defecators. If Singapore can enforce civic behaviour, why not Hyderabad? But for it to work, the public conveniences should be available. There is no use blaming our culture for this. Other countries faced similar problems. In the UK, the cholera epidemics in the 19th century led to the Great Sanitation Movement and completely eliminated the scourge of public defecation. It’s time we launched a similar effort.

A curious aside, one wonders if our traditional form of greeting ‘Namaste’ evolved just to avoid shaking hands with unhygienic people who not only relieve themselves in public, but also not wash afterwards.

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