It is sort of amusing, but not entirely far fetched that Rahul’s birthday coincides with World Toilet Day. That’s because he is super tickled by toilet-centric jokes, something he shares with four and a half year old Aadyaa, who thinks the kid in her class who says ‘potty’ five times in a sentence is absolutely the coolest right now! I wonder why I never noticed the connection before, but now that I have, I see a zillion possibilities!
Some of the statistics that have led to the need for something as bizarre as a World Toilet Day are not amusing at all though. The World Toilet Day website informs me that a third of people in the world do not have access to a toilet. Also, that 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation, that toilet facilities can be the incentive to keep girls in school and that every dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of five dollars for the economy……chew on that!
I was made aware of the enormous significance of sanitation early in life because of my dad’s profession. He was a gastroenterologist and a person who saw the interconnectedness in everything. He believed strongly that many of the health problems we face are psychosomatic and emotional in nature. The inability to access a private, clean and secure space to relieve yourself poses many challenges and can traumatize people. He spoke of patients who had stomach conditions born out of such issues. As a young girl, he constantly taught me that the right to access a toilet was one of the most fundamental rights we need to fight for. He repeatedly told me that it is such a pity that in our culture girls are taught from a very young age to “hold” because there were such few places where they could relieve themselves in conditions of safety and cleanliness. As an onlooker at workshops that my parents held with village people taught me, at a very impressionable age, that rural women venture into the fields before dawn in groups to defecate and each morning they went in real fear of being assaulted and raped.
It is perhaps then no coincidence that I feel drawn to community work and especially that related to housing and living conditions of the urban poor, who I feel really have a raw deal. Wherever I have had the opportunity to talk to slum dwellers, their primary need has been toilets inside their homes. For various reasons, community toilets have not been a success in India. However, retrofitting homes to add a toilet, has been widely taken up but can only be successful if a decent sewage system is put in place in informal settlements.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been had I been born poor. Of all the indignities I would have suffered, I am absolutely certain that the inability to attend the call of nature would have been the ultimate indignity for me to suffer. I am pinning my hopes on the Total Sanitation Campaign. If this basic dignity can be achieved for poor people across the nation, they could seriously be hopeful about being able to better their lives in many significant ways.