Sanitation And Cultural Beliefs: The Indian Dilemma

Sanitation is a vital part of human everyday life. We need to perform our bodily ablutions as a matter of routine, physiological processes to eliminate the waste from our body. Urine and feces are the end products of our metabolism. It is, however, also very important to properly dispose off this bodily waste, for both aesthetic and health reasons. Properly disposed off feces and urine ensure a clean, odorless environment, as well as prevent diseases due to microbes, like fecal coliform bacteria.

Improperly disposed off waste, on the other hand, will cause a noxious odor and be a breeding ground for diseases. Therefore, it is important to have proper sanitation facilities for everyone.

Unfortunately, the truth is not at all as the ideal should be. Not everyone is ‘privileged’ enough to have toilet facilities at home. In fact, in India, which has a population of about 1.25 billion, 70% of rural households do not have a toilet or latrine.

Now, like healthcare, sanitary toilet facilities are a necessity, and not a privilege. Then why, in India, are so many deprived of it? To what extent can we blame administrative ineptitude? Is there another factor at play here, like cultural beliefs related to sanitation, for example?

This is manifested in the failure of government schemes like Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan and Swacch Bharat Scheme. Both these campaigns have built plenty of pit latrines in rural areas, but there are two problems with this:

1. Building any number of toilets is futile if they’re not sustainable- that is they don’t have running water, electricity, and connections to sewerage lines for proper waste disposal. Biotoilets are a better solution in this case.
2. The responsibility doesn’t end at building toilets, but also raising awareness among the local populace with regard to its usage.

Let’s discuss the second point in detail. The issue of sanitation isn’t just one of health or environment, but also a social issue. There are religious and caste beliefs, especially in India, regarding bodily ablutions and handling of urine and feces. It begs a brief discussion of what these beliefs are, why they might be problematic and why they maybe preventing people, especially rural folks, from following proper sanitary practices.

India’s National Family Health Survey 2005 found that only about a fifth of Indian rural households that don’t openly defecate use pit latrines.

Studies in recent years have revealed the following about caste and religious equations in rural areas regarding sanitation:

1. Affordable latrines, used in other countries, are seen as physically impure and ritually polluting in India. Continuing practice of untouchability in villages also means that upper castes won’t carry the task of emptying pit latrines; and Dalits, historically expected to be manual scavengers, are emancipating themselves and refusing to clean other people’s messes-literally.
2. Open defecation, in rural areas where it is widely practiced, is not just socially acceptable, but is seen as a wholesome activity associated with health, strength and masculinity.
3. Some people see latrines and toilets as ‘ritually impure’, no matter how clean they’re kept. Sociologist RS Khare explains that the words ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ have ritualistic connotations
3. apart from physical ones. There are things which are both ritually polluting and physically unclean, some ritually polluting but physically unclean, and some ritually not polluting but physically unclean. Hindus who own pit latrines see them as shameful objects.
4. Distaste for latrines has to do with maintaining ‘purity’ of the home. When people justify open defecation, they’re saying that it’s good to go far from home to defecate- people who do build latrines build it far from home, often. This concern seems anachronistic in the light of the fact that often, the elderly, children and handicapped defecate within the premises of the home or compound, the feces being disposed off by the women of the house.
5. There is a belief that expensive latrines with large pits or massive underground tanks are not only status symbols but make for better toilets. Latrines with smaller soak pits, on the other hand, are looked down upon.
6. On the other hand, latrines promoted and built in India are relatively expensive to that in other developing nations eg. Swacch Bharat toilets are 12000 INR, while. Plus, people wanting latrines with larger leach pits makes building them much more expensive and therefore, untenable.
7. Many people reject latrines because of unfounded concerns about pit emptying. They harbor the misguided belief that government provided soak pits will fill in within months rather than years, and they don’t want the disgusting, arduous task of pit emptying. They are unaware that mechanical emptying of pit is impractical- pits should only be emptied on when the feces become compact. Affordable latrines, often, are built far from where sewage trucks can access them- trucks themselves expensive to hire. Therefore, soak pits are emptied by hand.
8. Rural Indians perceive pit emptying to be a problem because of untouchability. Manually touching feces is deigned the most degrading of all tasks, and the onus to carry out this task is plaed upon Dalits; and their being ‘ritually polluted’ by this, they are systematically oppressed and ostracized.
9. Former and present rural sanitation programs have a myopic view that relies on building the maximum number of toilets, without bothering to take into account local ethos on sanitation and cleanliness and the reason why, so far, rural folks have continued the practice of open defecation.

One solution would be for the government to start relating rural sanitation drives to a drive to eliminate manual scavenging. The government can start focusing on the Anti-Manual Scavenging act, raise questions on the feasibility of dry toilets and the human rights violation, both caste and health-based, to ask people to manually remove human waste. The health hazards of open defecation must be stressed on, and age old archaic beliefs about sanitation and bodily waste must be eliminated through awareness programs targeted at rural audiences.

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