A Problem of Waste

Many rural households in Rajasthan lack toilets

In this post, I want to address a somewhat delicate issue—toilets. As a foreigner in India, I am constantly surprised to see people urinating or even defecating in public. In the United States, my home country, this behavior is highly discouraged, punishable by arrest or a heavy fine. But in India, it is commonplace.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, more than 50 percent lack access to a toilet, and in rural areas of Rajasthan, this figure is closer to 60 percent. Until writing this post, I had never even considered finding comparable data for the United States. I had assumed, correctly, that the figure would be close to 100 percent.

The lack of toilets in India is not just a minor cultural difference. It is an issue of health and hygiene. Human waste carries many harmful diseases, and poor sanitation allows these diseases to spread. They are currently some of the world’s biggest killers, especially in rural areas.

The toilet gap is also an issue of dignity. Many Indian women wake up early in the morning to relieve themselves under the cover of darkness. While men can more or less do their business as they please, women are expected to preserve at least a shred of modesty. Of course, when half of a country’s population must conduct a highly private act in public, that entire country is somewhat degraded in the eyes of the world. Whether people realize it or not, it reflects a severe lack of infrastructure.

India’s rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, is fully aware this situation. He recently came under fire for asserting that “toilets are more important than temples.” While this comparison may not have been appropriate, I understand his concern. On an earlier occasion, he phrased his thoughts a bit more sensitively, “We are the world’s capital for open defecation. 60 per cent of all open defecation in the world are in India. This is a matter of great shame.” If those same numbers applied to the U.S., I would feel the same way.

*Ben Soltoff, Intern


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