Toilets in India

IMG_8478At the banks of Indus river in Nimmu, Ladakh

This morning I saw this tweet by Bill Gates which triggered my immediate response (and started a discussion) …


… and remembered me about this text I wrote as an introduction for a longer story “Why urban and rural India should meet”:

This is almost my third year in India now. Most of my time I’ve spent in rural areas. Sometimes at first light I drive out on my motorbike across the country. Madhya Pradesh, where I live, is crisscrossed with a web of narrow, unpaved, dusty roads on which huge potholes create small mosquito-infested lakes during the monsoon season. They take me through vast forests of teak trees to small villages where it seems like time has been standing still for decades. It’s then that I see the hidden part of India. The sprawling network of lonesome roads, which only appear as thin hairlines on any map, connect some 700,000 villages throughout the whole of India many of which are not even marked on Google maps.

Just before sunrise the men, women and children emerge from their huts and houses – homes which are mostly just one room with no furniture, no electricity and no sanitation in which the three generations of the same family plus a goat or two sleep on the ground. They carry cans of water to wash themselves after they’ve emptied their bowels somewhere. Sometimes they’ll shit right next to the road, sometimes along the railway tracks, sometimes in the fields, and very often the kids shit on the heaps of uncollected garbage where pavements should be. Right next to the chickens, pigs, donkeys, goats and cows strolling through the garbage looking for something to eat. This mixture of rotting garbage and excrement emits an acrid nauseous smell which hangs in the air like a pall. It becomes truly excruciating when they set fire to it, which they very often do.

Sordid as this is, it’s daily reality for more than half a billion people – almost the total number of people living in the U.S. and Europe. India accounts for around 36 per cent of the world’s poor. Just recently (May 2014) the United Nations published a report stating that 600 million people in India are now living below the poverty line of $ 1.25 a day.

Bill Gates started to work on toilets six years ago, a huge competiton started to re-invent the toilet. A good thing. No doubt. And necessary. But the outcome – a nightmare! Even the New York Times – who usually acts as a Gates promoter – was astonished by the lack of “rural knowledge” this entire project bared. And this is just one example of so many toilet challenges … The question seems so obvious where isn’t there a solution yet?

Technology doesn’t seem to provide anything helpful. Too expensive to roll out in masses, too far away from the “client’s” habits, environment unfriendly and and and … Why not look at rural areas in India where it’s clean and people are aware of hygiene and cleanliness and learn from them. There are examples …

– Asia’s cleanest village is in north eastern India (Mawlynnong)
– tribals in Thudukky, Agaly, Palghat, Kerala (as I just learnt now via twitter)
– Ladakh (see photo on top) is very clean

What do they do?

It starts basically with collecting the waste. There are various ways of doing it. Collecting in bamboo or wooden dust bins directed to pits and use it as manure. Collection in big holes, and again use it as manure. Keep the natural waters clean. The shit goes separately – but is used in the same way. And washing afterwards is essential. But this is what most of the people are aware of. At least this is what I see (see my description above). They find a way by themselves … going along with their habits.

Crucial seems to be that in all these areas mentioned above the literacy rate is way above average! So it goes along with education … which once again is key.

I truly believe and this is why invest the little money I have in education that with education many of the problems can be solved. We need a kind of education which suits the people’s environments and needs, not one (Western) system for the entire world. The meaning of education has very local faces and these local colors need to be addressed. A situational approach of learning is needed which aims much more towards the collective (the villages in the cases above) than towards the individual.

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