Purity and pollution stand in the way of using loos 

In Where India Goes – Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, the authors Diane Coffey and Dean Spears presents the puzzle of open defecation in India, because it is important to understand why few villagers use latrines

Diane Coffey & Dean Spears

Three imposing mud pillars support the high ceiling of Ritesh Mishra’s gateway. Most people who visit him stop there: In conservative Brahmin households like his, the inside space is reserved for women. But if you stopped at the impressive exterior, you would not know that the house is cramped on the inside. The interior offers only a small, open space for cooking at the front, with another small covered space for women to sleep at the back. The rest of the building belongs to Ritesh’s extended family members, whose house is separated from his by an interior wall.

In the far corner of the entrance, a shelf is carved out of the thick mud wall. Beneath it, Ritesh sat cross-legged on a cot, his cheek bulging, and his lips stained red from the paan he was chewing. Nikhil and Diane approached him and Nikhil explained that they had come to this village in western Uttar Pradesh to learn about open defecation and latrine use in villages – would Ritesh be willing to talk for an hour or so? Diane and Nikhil learnt that Ritesh and his wife are both in their forties. They live with their two unmarried children: a boy in his early twenties and an eighteen-year-old girl. All four family members defecate in the open. Ritesh goes to defecate twice a day, first around five in the morning and then again at seven at night. Each time he walks for about half an hour and goes to a different field or open space depending on his whim that day. His wife leaves to defecate earlier in the morning than he does, around four thirty, and returns to the house quickly to begin the day’s work.

Ritesh explained that there had recently been a government latrine construction drive in the village, and that he had been offered a free latrine by the pradhan, or elected village leader. ‘The pradhan wanted to give me a latrine, but I didn’t take it … I didn’t take it because [I’d have to pass by it on my way in and out, that would be awful]. There’s not so much space either, and you can see that Lord Shiva’s temple is there, and so is Barham baba’s place. So, if I get a latrine built there, I would not like it …’

It was not entirely clear to us at the time what Ritesh would not like about a latrine being built by the temple. Nikhil wondered aloud whether Ritesh could have simply had the latrine built inside the house instead. ‘What would be the problem with building a latrine inside the house?’ ‘What should I say to you, brother,’ Ritesh answered. ‘My heart doesn’t allow for this. If one has [a latrine] in the house, it is quite disgusting. I do not like this. You can see that my house is [made of inexpensive materials], but you can also see that it is nicely coated with mud and cow-dung paste. Isn’t it? So, in this way, we are people who live in a clean and healthy place. [Having a latrine] would make me feel disgusting. It smells, it smells like filth, that’s why I wouldn’t like it, brother. I was getting [a latrine for free], but I didn’t take it.’

Why did Ritesh Mishra refuse the free latrine? In this chapter and in the next, we will try to explain a world view in which open defecation is clean and latrines are dirty. In order to do so, we will draw on others’ research on the sociology and anthropology of rural India and also on our own field research.

The SQUAT (Sanitation, Qualify, Use, Access and Trends) survey produced useful statistics, but to understand the puzzle of open defecation in rural India, we would have to take a different approach – to listen and learn about how people think. So, along with our team at r.i.c.e. (research institute for compassionate economics) we conducted many in-depth, conversational interviews in villages in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and southern Nepal. When we still had open questions, we followed up with less-structured fieldwork and observation in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Most of this book, most of our research and most of the world’s open defecation are concentrated in rural north India. As always, our fieldwork will be most relevant to the northern Indian plains states that we have studied, although we have seen evidence that these interpretations hold for other parts of India too.

Villagers’ concepts of purity and pollution play an important role in explaining why Ritesh, Shantanu and their neighbours reject the kinds of inexpensive latrines that are used in other developing countries. Such concepts are intimately related to the Hindu caste system and to the struggle of untouchables to be accepted as equals.

This excerpt has been taken with permission from Harper Collins India; 271 pages

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Published: 22 Jul 2017, 1:30 PM