The Big Necessity

Latrine Rights in India
News and commentary about environmental issues.
Oct. 9 2008 7:06 AM

The Big Necessity

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It drips on her head most days, says Champaben, but in the monsoon season it's worse. In rain, worms multiply. Every day, nonetheless, she gets up and walks to her owners' house, and there she picks up their excrement with her bare hands or a piece of tin, scrapes it into a basket, puts the basket on her head or shoulders and carries it to the nearest waste dump. She has no mask, no gloves, and no protection. She is paid a pittance, if she is paid at all. She regularly gets dysentery, giardiasis, brain fever. She does this because a 3,000-year-old social hierarchy says she has to.

They used to be known as bhangi, a word formed from the Sanskrit for "broken," and the Hindi for "trash." Today, official India calls them the "scheduled castes," but activists prefer Dalits, a word that means "broken" or "oppressed" but with none of the negativity of bhangi. Most modern Indians don't stick to their caste jobs any more. There is more inter-caste marriage, more fluidity, more freedom than ever before. But the outcastes are usually still outcastes, because they are still the ones who tan India's animals, burn its dead, and remove its excrement. Champaben is considered untouchable by other untouchables—even the tanners of animals and the burners of corpses—because she is a safai karamchari.This literally means "sweeper" but is generally translated into English as "manual scavenger," a term popularized by India's British rulers, who did nothing to eradicate the practice and much to keep it going. This scavenging has none of the usefulness of the usual meaning. There is no salvaging of waste, no making good of the discarded. Champaben recycles nothing and gains nothing. She takes filth away, and for this she is considered dirt.

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There are between 400,000 and 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, depending on who is compiling the figures. They are employed—owned, more accurately—by private families and by municipalities, by army cantonments and railway authorities. Their job is to clean up feces wherever it presents itself: on railway tracks, in clogged sewers. Mostly, they empty India's dry latrines. A latrine is usually defined as a receptacle in the ground which holds human excreta, but dry latrines often don't bother with receptacles. They consist of two bricks, usually, placed squatting distance apart, over flat ground. There is no pit. There may be a channel or gutter nearby, but that would be luxury. The public ones usually have no doors, no stalls, and no water. There are still up to ten million dry latrines in India, and they probably only survive because Champaben and others are still prepared to clean them.

I meet Champaben in a village in rural Gujarat. Like every other state in India, Gujarat is bound by the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which makes manual scavenging illegal on pain of a year's imprisonment or a 2,000 rupee ($45) fine. On paper, Champaben doesn't exist, and on paper, she is as free as the next villager. Untouchability has been illegal in India since 1949, when it was abolished by means of Article 17 of the constitution.

Champaben knows that. But what can she do? Scavengers have been doing their work since they were children, and they will do it until they die, and then their children will take over. Champaben's mother-in-law, Gangaben, is 75 years old. She has been scavenging for 50 years. In a village nearby, I meet Hansa and her daughter Meena, who is 10. Meena has already been introduced to her mother's job, because she has to do it when her mother is ill or pregnant or both. Most manual scavenging is done by women, who marry into it and have no choice. Men in the manual scavenger class often hide their profession from prospective brides until it's too late, and they can escape their foul work in alcohol because they have a wife to do it for them. Some scavengers work in cities as sewer cleaners and unclog blockages with their bare hands, their only protection a rope. They are regularly killed. Last year, three men died of asphyxiation when they entered a manhole in New Delhi.

The women talk freely. They are chatty and assertive and pristine. I look at them and try to see the dirt on them and in them, but I can't. They are elegant and beautiful even when they bend down to pick up the two pieces of cracked tin they use to scoop up the feces; when they demonstrate how they sweep the filth into the basket; when they lift the basket high with arms glittering with bangles and considerable grace. Their compound is dusty but not dirty, though they are not given soap by their owners and though they are not allowed to get water from the well without permission from an upper caste villager. They offer me a tin beaker of yellow water. "Look at it," says Mukesh, an activist from a local Dalit organization called Navsarjan who has accompanied me. "Look at what they have to drink." The beaker presents a quandary. I consider pathogens and fecal-oral contamination pathways, and I consider that they'll expect me to refuse to take a drink from an untouchable, because many Indians would. I take a sip and hope for the best, feeling pious and foolish, imagining bugs and worms slipping down into my guts, wreaking havoc.

In the late 1960s, the young Bindeshwar Pathak was studying sociology, and like many young Indians, getting used to being part of a newly independent and ambitious nation, he was an idealist. His ideals were those of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The father of the modern Indian nation was one of the few political leaders in history to talk publicly about toilets. There is a scene in Richard Attenborough's biopic where Gandhi argues with his wife because she refuses to clean their latrine. She says it is the work of untouchables; he tells her there is no such thing.

Gandhi's tactics of encouraging brotherly love across caste boundaries and urging Indians to clean their own latrines had failed miserably. The status quo was too convenient. Pathak decided a better solution was to provide an alternative technology. Scavengers' jobs would never be surplus to India's needs, not with a population of a billion excreting people. Perhaps the solution was to make scavengers unemployable by eradicating dry latrines. Not by knocking them down, but by providing a better latrine model that didn't require humans to clean it but that was cheap and easy. Most importantly, it had to be easy to keep nice. Given a choice between a smelly, dirty latrine and the street, even the most desperate might choose the latter. Pathak read WHO manuals about pit latrines and developed his own version.

It had to be on-site, because India has neither water nor sewers enough to install expensive waterborne treatment systems. Even today, only 232 of India's 5,233 towns have even partial sewer coverage. Indian urban wastewater treatment consisted of dumping it in rivers. The mighty Yamuna river, which supposedly dropped to earth from heaven but which actually runs nearly 200 miles from the Himalayas through the nation's capital, has millions of gallons of sewage poured into it every day. By the time it reaches Delhi, the Yamuna is dead. As for the Ganges, its fecal coliform count makes its supposedly purifying waters a triumph of wishful thinking, unless the purification is the kind you get from chronic diarrhea, dysentery, or cholera.

Pathak called his new latrine the Sulabh Shauchalaya ("Easy Latrine"). It was twin-pit and pour-flush. It could be flushed with only a cupful of water, compared with the ten liters needed for flush toilets. There was no need to connect it to sewers or septic tanks, because the excreta could compost in one pit, and when that was full, after two to four years, the latrine owner could switch to the other, leaving the full pit to compost. This was another Gandhian concept: The Mahatma had used the phrase tatti par mitti ("soil over shit"), and would dig a pit for his own excreta then cover it with soil when it was full. The Great Soul of India was a pioneering composter. The Easy Latrine leached its liquids into the ground but supposedly without polluting groundwater. Most importantly, it was cheap, with the most inexpensive model costing only 500 rupees ($10).

Despite all this, Pathak's technology found no takers for three years. He had to sell some of his wife's jewelry and resorted to peddling his grandfather's bottles of home-cure remedies. Until one day, when he entered an office in a town in Bihar and sold the idea of the Sulabh model to the municipal officer on duty.

The Sulabh model consisted of more than the latrine. It was also a method. Pathak saw how the aid and grant-making world worked. Budgets and donor cycles are fixed. They can be withdrawn after a few years with little notice. Pathak decided that Sulabh would not accept grants. It would make sanitation a business that paid for itself.

It doesn't sound radical, but it was. In the 1970s, development experts were convinced that poor people wouldn't pay for sanitation. Since then, this has been proven to be nonsense. Poor people pay up to ten times more for water—from water gangsters or private tankers—than a resident with municipal water supply. United Kingdom regulations concluded that spending more than 3 percent of the household budget was an indicator of hardship. But poor people in Uganda, for example, spend 22 percent of their budget on water.

Pathak thought people would pay, so he developed a range of models for all budgets and tastes. His social-service organization would be nonprofit, but it would be a business. This thinking was new.

In the 1970s, public toilets in India were a rare sight. The few in existence were squalid and offered little advantage to defecating on the pavement outside, so people often chose the street instead. Pathak had an idea that was simple, new, and apparently doomed. If people had a clean toilet with water and light, they'd probably be willing to pay for it. "People laughed at me," he recalls. "They said, in Bihar, people don't pay for bus tickets and rail tickets. Why would they pay for toilets?"

But his negotiation skills served him well, because in 1973, the first Sulabh public toilet opened in Patna, the state capital of Bihar. It had water, electricity, and round-the-clock attendants. Sulabh charged one rupee for toilet use, and urinals for men were free. (Women could also urinate for free, but they have to specify their needs to the caretaker.) A wash cost two rupees. In the first day, Pathak says, 500 people used it.

Sulabh's concept of pay-per-use was not new—a similar government program had been tried, and failed, several years earlier. But the business model was. Instead of funding toilets with government grants, Sulabh approached authorities and municipalities and suggested something different: if the authority paid for the cost of constructing the toilet and provided the land, Sulabh would run it for a set number of years and keep the profits. The business model was an attractive one to municipal authorities who, back then, could not be bothered with sanitation. "Before, no-one wanted to know," says Pathak. "In the beginning, we couldn't find anyone willing to tender to construct toilets. The upper castes wouldn't consider it. They wouldn't even come to meetings. Now they fight for the tenders. We have blended social reform and economic gain."

Rose George is the author ofThe Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. She lives in London.

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