World Toilet Day: Recommitting to a Clean India

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The Swachchha Bharat (literally translates to “Clean India”) mission has been somewhat derailed by jingoistic publicity stunts and political gimmicks to gain popularity mileage in an ever-spinning story of vote counting, thereby burying the true implications of what could have been the first step towards making a cleaner India, a healthier India. Without going into the details of all the derailments and my personal reservations about the necessity of people of all professions thronging the streets with large brooms, the smallest of which can put the Nimbus9001 to shame, let me just say it is time we took a re-look at the issue and recommitted ourselves to clean up our country. And what better occasion to do that than the World Toilet Day: which is today!

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In the previous years, I have consistently blogged on this day trying to write about the various facets of proper sanitation. I have written about the general health implications and need for sanitation, the social iffiness in trying to discuss this issue, and sanitation and its role in mitigating gender violence. This last topic is the general topic of discussion on the CDC Global Health blog today as well (read the post here).

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“The local train is here! Now see how my bowels clear out!”

There has been a shift in the political stance around what has traditionally been a topic that has been mostly avoided in public discourse. United Nations’ Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassen sums it up well when he states:

“Let’s face it – this is a problem that people do not like to talk about. But it goes to the heart of ensuring good health, a clean environment and fundamental human dignity for billions of people.”

This has always been the reaction that I have received whenever I have raised the issue of the World Toilet Day in academic forums or within my social circles. While it seems ridiculous to most that toilets are a thing to be talked about, it is a reality that will not just die out because we refuse to acknowledge it. Hence, it was more than a generous dollop of pleasant surprise that I felt when I heard the Prime Minister of the nation, on the occasion of the Independence Day speech, state (text according to India Today):

Brother and Sisters, we are living in 21st century. Has it ever pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in open? Whether dignity of women is not our collective responsibility? The poor womenfolk of the village wait for the night; until darkness descends, they can`t go out to defecate. What bodily torture they must be feeling, how many diseases that act might engender. Can’t we just make arrangements for toilets for the dignity of our mothers and sisters? Brothers and Sisters, somebody might feel that a big festival like 15th August is an occasion to talk big.

Brothers and Sisters, talking big has its importance, making announcements too has importance, but sometimes announcements raise hopes and when the hopes are not fulfilled, the society sinks into a state of despondency. That’s why are in favour of telling those things, which we can fulfill just within our sight. Brothers and sisters, you must be getting shocked to hear the Prime Minister speaking of cleanliness and the need to build toilets from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

In the few days that followed, there was a bevy of Industries and Private companies that lined up to fill the coffers of the thus-far-ignored issue with the bounties that came from their “Corporate Social Responsibility” budgets. It was a media frenzy which whipped up a lot of attention and actually, I felt hopeful that the issue would now gain the traction it has long deserved.

So, from what we have seen in the media, there seems to be the political will, there is a sudden spurt in general awareness and interest in the issue, and from the mile-long commitments from industry, there is, ostensibly, no immediate fiscal worries that set the project back. The issue boils down to the age old Indian conundrum: can we make it work, or will it turn out to be a lot of empty noise at the end of the day?

The ramparts of the Red Fort have been used to speak for the need to have more toilets. Let us now stop the interminable sessions of photo-ops in the name of the “Clean India” movement and try to actually clean India up. Let us commit to keeping our own environment litter-free, clean. And let us commit to a day when this deadly infomercial is no longer the headliners in CDC email missives:

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Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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