In the toilet

The thing about a handy saying is that everyone wants to claim they have said it first. Narendra Modi seems to be pleased at presenting himself as a modern man when he said India needs toilets not temples. Jairam Ramesh is mad because he had presented the same inversion a year ago and gotten slammed for it by the ever-ready-for-outrage protestors of the Sangh Parivar and people in his own party as well.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Modi thinks he cuts a particularly dashing, devil-may-care figure in saying this because what’s unsaid is that it is supposed to be a shocking statement. Sure enough Praveen Togadia, never at a loss for words, called this unsavoury. Why? Because to speak of temples and toilets in one breath is to speak of brahmins and dalits in one breath. And toilets as Bindeshwar Pathak the founder of Sulabh Shauchalaya told me in an interview in 2006 “was always a subject reserved for the lower castes so people would not like to talk about it even today.”

Anyway, the first time I encountered this saying, “Hamein devalaya nahin, shauchalaya chahiye,” (makes more sense when said in Hindi) was also in 2006 while making a film about precisely this so-called favourite subject, toilets.

Rajendra Kumbhare, a man I met in the small town of Karad, Maharashtra, told me he had coined the slogan with shining eyes and a pleased grin. I can’t verify it of course, but I can attest to his shining eyes and deep excitement as he showed me a model of an hexagonal public toilet which used solar power which he had developed. He told me that when they built a few of these, people had said it looked like a temple due to its shape, whereupon he had quipped, “Yes, par hamein devalaya nahin shauchalay chahiye.”

Kumbhare ran something called the MN Roy Insititute for Non-Formal Education and Research in Karad, out of his home, where he has been doing this kind of research and activism. MN Roy by the way, who is his hero, was a Communist revolutionary who later became a radical humanist, founding the Radical Democratic Party.

Kumbhare had carried out surveys of toilets and designed several toilets as well as run a programme where he trained rural women to be plumbers so they too could get employment under the toilet construction part of the government’s 100 per cent sanitation program. He had devoted his life to this kind of work, travelling in rural Maharashtra along with a couple of other colleagues on a motorcycle which, he informed me proudly, “in the past three years has covered 74,000 kilometres.”

Crazy but dedicated people like this do make grassroots change and recognise people’s needs because they think hard about them. By no means are Kumbhare or Pathak who was laughed at for building the first pay toilet in Patna (“People in Bihar don’t pay bus fare or train fare, how will they pay toilet fare?’ people said to me” he remarked in his interview) the only ones, although they are among too few.

It’s deeply shocking that a remark pitting toilets and temples is still considered outrageous. When caste ideas are so deeply ingrained, we have to wonder what conception of change and development such leaders have to offer.

We’ll see how many toilets any of these folks build. The 626 million Indians who still have to defecate in the open won’t be holding it till Modi or anyone delivers though I’m sure. It’s likely they’ll be busy getting more ‘temples of modern India’ — shiny airports, pointless dams.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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