The human rights of dumping
The villagers of Swacchpura could not understand why a centuries-old tradition needed more discussion
It was a pre-Christmas party and someone was asking me why I was so obsessed with toilets. I patiently explained that no less a personage than Bill Gates considered it important to research and understand why so many Indians preferred the fields to closed toilets.
"Why don't you write about something more important?" asked my interlocutor. "Such as human rights?" I considered this for a long moment. "Do you think humans have a right to do it in the fields?" I asked him finally. "Why don't you ask some villagers what they think?" he dared me. So I did.
I met my first problem right here - no one in the Mumbai suburb of Swachhpura could understand why we needed to discuss something that had been an accepted tradition since the dawn of peristalsis. No one disputed that on Indian streets, cows and bulls dropped steaming patties where they wished, or that birds did it on the sculpted heads of statesmen and visionaries.
But humans, being at the top of the food chain, should be able to excrete at will where they wished. This was the considered opinion of the council elders. "But is open-air excretion a human right?" I asked.
"It's a human need as well as a right and no one can take it away," the village elder replied. "Though God knows wave after wave of colonisers have tried their best to suppress and deny human excretory rights. Our diets used to be rich in fruits, nuts, quick-cooked vegetables, unmilled cereals, and fibres. Then along came McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and their ilk, with their fizzy zero-calorie drinks and burgers high in proteins and preservatives and no roughage. Now our children don't go in
"You're telling me that suppressing human excretory rights has been an international agenda through history?" "Exactly," he said admiringly. "You are definitely the sharpest knife in the drawer."
"There's more," he continued. "Multinationals offer top dollar for our land and rivers to build their factories. We're poor, so we take the offer. Now the field I once used to fertilise with my exertions every morning belongs to a corporate giant who makes breakfast cereal we don't even like."
I thought this was an opportune moment to introduce the toilet theme. "Supposing we constructed a toilet in each village, so that every villager could use one? Imagine a closed room, completely private, with an easy-to-clean ceramic bowl, a tap with running water, special super-soft, double-ply tissues which we call toilet paper - and a small fee, perhaps a rupee, to hire an attendant to keep it clean?" The assembly was silent, chewing over this new concept. "You mean we'll now pay to do something that we could once do where we wished?"
Another calculated: "A rupee a day is 30 rupees a month. I have seven in my family, so we're looking at about 200 rupees a month. And, we usually don't have any money in the last week. Does this mean we'd have to just not go until the next salary arrived?"
"There's that old suppression of minority rights trick again!" shouted an angry villager. "They're trying to create a problem for us by taking a right away, then trying to get us all hot and bothered about our rights being violated, and then suggesting a solution that will only make us poorer and more constipated!"
"Not necessarily," I said. "What if the first 25 families that endorse walled public toilets were offered a free lifetime supply of Isabgol? It's an outstanding laxative."
There was silence. "Also free education up to end of school for the first three children," I added. More silence. "And fur-lined seats," I threw in, desperately. Some villagers began to nod. "Do we have a right to these free add-ons - Isabgol, school, fur-lined seats?"
I smiled. Breakthrough! "You do!" I cried. "You also have a natural right to an Income Generating Activity, such as packaging locally harvested fleaseed husks, that will generate enough income to pay for the free add-ons." "We pay for free add-ons?" frowned a villager.
"You can call them whatever you like," I said triumphantly. "Bottom line: you have a right to a toilet. You have a right to a fur-lined toilet. You have a right to have a smooth unfettered bowel movement each morning. You have a right to a laxative. You have a right to child-friendly environment and free primary education. You have a right to pay for all of the above. Isn't science wonderful?"
"I beg to differ about the paying. . ." began one old man. I held up a finger. "I regret that is the only thing you don't, at this moment, have a right to do," I said.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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