In his novel “Delhi”, Khushwant Singh facetiously stated: “The Indian peasant is the world’s champion shitter.” If public defecation were an art, India would have more artists per square kilometre than any place in the world. According to most reports, approximately half of Indians (roughly 500 million) have no access to toilets and while many analysts classify the problem as either social or economic, I (along with some other writers) classify it as cultural. Most analysts, especially westerns one, refrain from defining the problems of non western countries along cultural lines since foreign cultures are sacrosanct. The sad fact is, in most cases the failings of a society can be directly linked to its culture; and India is no exception to this axiom. I’m not downplaying external factors (wars, imperialism ect) for the sorry state of the third world, but somehow the culture variable always evades scrutiny. Some believe that India is too poor to afford toilets, but as the Hindu (Indian newspaper) points out:
“Open defecation is not so common elsewhere. The list of African countries with lower percentage rates of open defecation than India includes Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and more.”
So why do Indians do it then? According to journalist Aakar Patel:
“Why did the villager need to be told in 2009 that he could build a toilet in his house? I could think of two reasons: He did not understand hygiene, and he was stopped from building one by the village’s upper caste.”(emphasis mine)
Sautik Biswas of the BBC asks:”Is the lack of toilets and preference for open defecation a cultural issue in a society where the habit actually perpetuates social oppression, as proved by the reduced but continued existence of low caste human scavengers and sweepers?”
Biswas hits the nail on the head with that observation but does not really elaborate. I think he means to say that the lower castes were denied toilets to remind them of their inferior status in society and the universe (per Hindu tradition). Today, most peasants willingly shun toilets in favour of the open fields as I suspect they have internalized three thousand years of abuse. The government of India is desperately trying to change this.
Defecating in seclusion is one of those acts that separates us from animals. When we engage in this most base function, we do so in privacy to maintain our dignity and remain cognizant that we are a higher species. Of the three base functions, only one is a social activity (eating) whereas the other two are private. By robbing the peasant of his dignity, the upper castes have over the centuries reduced the lower ones to non entities; thereby exercising absolute control over them. Never underestimate the power of privacy. According to some reports, the Aztec emperor Montezuma ate his meals behind an opaque barrier. By not allowing his subjects to see him engage in this base function enabled him to project an image of divinity.
Biswas finally concludes his article with:
“But until the time its people get rid of curious – and skewed – cultural attitudes to community sanitation and hygiene, India will never have enough toilets.”
That seems like the politic way of concluding an article whose subject matter skirts along the edges of political correctness, however, changing cultural practices rooted in four thousand years of history is easier said than done. India’s Hinduized culture is not one that recognizes equality, individualism, and social conscience. As John P Jones once said, “All these are the foibles of the west.”