Ecology Systemic issues of India

Swachh Bharat: Ecological intervention that can lead to epidemics

Every time I listen to the person impersonating Vidya Balan murdering my beloved mother-tongue in Swachh Bharat advertisement, my blood boils; but at the same time I also break into cold sweat when I think of ecological impact of this massive drive. As Swachh Bharat hopes to add nearly a crore of indoor toilets, it is one of the biggest ecological interventions, especially for rural India.

I can clearly imagine well-intending policy-makers of Swachh Bharat perched on glittering pots in their urban toilets, posing like Rodin’s Thinker and feeling good about saving their rural brothers from early morning visit of great open spaces. I am convinced about their good intention, but there is one thing I am not very sure of, and that is, if they actually know what a rural toilet looks and feels like.

Those who have used an indoor toilet in an Indian village would surely know that there is no time to strike the Rodin pose there. The most memorable part of such an excretion excursion is always the insect attack.

A rural toilet built from shoe-string budget is what an insect-Dante would use for inspiration of Paradiso. If you are a mosquito, a damp dark place frequented by a thin-skinned unclothed mammal forced into a compromised position of immobility would be like a London pub with an open bar and a live cabaret. Constant presence of moisture and proximity to fecal material would make rural toilet prime real estate for entire insect community and pathogens that ride them.

Our policy-makers need to realize that cultural taboo linked with indoor toilet is not a result of our backward thinking. For a tropical nation where insect-favoring heat and humidity are constantly present, fecal material teeming with pathogens requires to be deposited as far away from human habitat as possible.

The modern dislike for outdoor defecating is actually an urban elitist distortion that stems from the revolting sight of urban poor, mostly migrants from villages, defecating along railway-lines or on footpaths. This underlying revulsion has instigated us to look for a way to hide this sight under the garb of an “improvement” of health and hygiene. The reality is; shifting defecation behind closed doors in a village is a disaster in making. Rural toilets, especially those built sans drainage connectivity and running water, are potential epicenters of epidemics.

Swachh Bharat claims to have health as its core agenda, but I fail to see any detail study indicating what exactly is this health hazard, especially in rural context, and why it can only be solved with indoor toilets. The most common problem of flies picking up pathogens from excrement and contaminating food items can surely have other solutions like encouraging people to cover or bury their feces (that many animals do). In fact, traditional defecating-away-from-home is actually a far more effective way to prevent flies from bringing pathogens to homes. An indoor toilet would be just what typhoid or cholera bacterium would dream of.

Though linked with health, the real issue that has struck emotional chord of people is safety of women. Indoor toilet can be a solution for this serious problem, but only if villagers can construct drainage-linked well-ventilated and tiled toilets that they can keep clean and dry. Till that is not possible, community toilets away from homes with safe well-lit passage may be the only trade off worth considering.

At this point, Swachh Bharat is actually trying to solve an urban problem in rural context where matching infrastructure doesn’t exist to make it work. What rural India is doing right now is mindlessly following a dream that is likely to turn into a nightmare.

DNA: 2/10/16

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

1 comment on “Swachh Bharat: Ecological intervention that can lead to epidemics

  1. In Madhya Pradesh it has become a good source of scam / income to Sarpanchs and other people involved in Panchayat. I will say 70% Toilets that are built in my village are not in a position to be used. It would have been much better to provide clean Public toilets in villages then asking them to have their own.

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