Can Toilet: Ek Prem Katha tackle the deep-rooted problem of open defecation in India?

Tania Bhattacharya

Jul,03 2017 19:23 15 IST

Dawn has just broken, and there’s a middle-aged gentleman seemingly innocently squatting and enjoying birdcalls and the beauty of nature with a look of contentment on his face. But that satisfaction comes from — pardon my language — taking a good dump, in the open. This is the ambience that has worked for him all his life; he will argue it is key to his well-being. It’s an all too familiar visual — even the first trailer of Akshay Kumar’s next, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (TEPK) opens with a similar view.

Based on Narendra Modi’s ambitious Swacch Bharat Mission, through which he has promised to declare India open defecation free by 2019, the film is an apt Independence Day release. It reflects the ruling party’s non-insidious agendas and, of course, will attempt to address one of India’s most pressing concerns — hygiene and sanitation.

Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar in Toilet: Em Prem Katha. Image via Twitter

Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar in Toilet: Em Prem Katha. Image via Twitter

While it would be unfair to judge the book by its cover, the trailer suggests that the very notion of change comes up for discussion based on the fragility of female honour playing out within a patriarchal narrative. But, as a writer with one foot in the industry door, I’d simultaneously like to point out that for a film to cater to the tastes of the entire nation, a romantic-patriarchal angle is a safe bet — one that will also guarantee box-office performance. No industry operates without substantial return on investment, be that financially or socio-politically. And so, TEPK deserves its time in the limelight for taking an important step forward. The question is, will it be able to make a difference?

“Do we really know who, how and through which medium can actually trigger/alter an opinion?” asks VK Madhavan, chief executive at WaterAid India. “Films are a brilliant medium to reach out to the masses and convey socially relevant messages. We need every bit of help that we can get. Actors like Akshay Kumar, with a huge fan following, definitely have the potential to reach out to a large audience.”

Nikhil Srivastav, research director for sanitation at r.i.c.e., concurs. “In general, it’s good that a Bollywood film is tackling this subject,” he says. “One commendable action is that Akshay Kumar emptied a pit in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. He went down into a latrine pit, in which faeces has been dried according to government guidelines, and emptied it. We hope the crew of the film will carry out more such activities and raise awareness among rural Indians."

“However, we hope the film does not use patriarchal messages to promote latrines. These kinds of messages have been used in the past, bolstering the belief among rural Indians that latrines are for women.”

65 percent of rural Indians do not have a latrine, while the number for Pakistan is 34 percent, Bangladesh is 2 percent, Nigeria is 31 percent, and Sub-Saharan Africa is 34 percent.

The issue of open defecation in India is a multilayered one. It is not simply a matter of rural Indians being unable to afford latrines. There’s a deep divide, in fact, between the construction of latrines and actual usage. Statistics for the latter, which should ideally be collected on an individual level, are unavailable since SBM came into play. According to data from r.i.c.e., 60 percent of all open defecation in the world happens in India, and it is not a reflection of India’s large population. India is home to around 17 percent of the world population, and has a disproportionately higher share of open defecation among all countries in the world. Data from a UNICEF-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme states that 65 percent of rural Indians do not have a latrine, while the number for Pakistan is 34 percent, Bangladesh is 2 percent, Nigeria is 31 percent, and Sub-Saharan Africa is 34 percent. All these places have a much lower per capita income than India.

“The scale of our problem is such that even a 30 percent decrease in open defecation through actual usage of toilets over a five-year period will shift global indicators on open defecation,” says Madhavan. “This would imply an increase of 168 million people using toilets."

“The government offers incentives, not subsidies, any more. In most parts of the country a toilet of reasonable quality and size will cost more than the incentive. Different states are adopting different approaches. For those who cannot afford a toilet even an incentive that can create a basic structure is better than none. But is there evidence to suggest that incentives for toilets don’t just lead to construction but also usage?”

In a paper published in EPW in January, researchers Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Dean Spears, Srivastav and Sangita Vyas of r.i.c.e. found that “widespread open defecation in rural India is not attributable to relative material or educational deprivation, but rather to beliefs, values, and norms about purity, pollution, caste, and untouchability that cause people to reject affordable latrines. Many people consider having and using a pit latrine ritually impure and also polluting. Open defecation, in contrast, is seen as promoting purity and strength, particularly by men, who typically decide how money is spent in rural households.” These findings are based on nationally representative statistics on sanitation and human development from countries around the world; new semi-structured qualitative interviews from India and the Nepali Terai; quantitative survey data of 3,200 households in five North Indian states; and years of fieldwork in villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

The caste system, and notions of purity and pollution are the greatest threats to promoting latrine use in rural India.

The caste system, and notions of purity and pollution are the greatest threats to promoting latrine use in rural India. “The money that the government claims to be spending on latrines in rural areas — Rs 12,000 per household — is enough to build a small twin-pit latrine, which is recommended by the government and WHO,” says Srivastav. “But most people wrongly think that these latrines will have to be emptied frequently. And pit emptying is complicated by caste and practices of untouchability in India. Manually emptying a pit is associated with work that Dalits have traditionally done, and because of this, caste Hindus consider it unfathomable to empty a pit themselves. At the same time, because things are slowly changing in rural areas, Dalits are trying to move away from the kinds of degrading jobs they used to be compelled to do, like manual scavenging. What this means is that trying to get one’s pit emptied presents a complicated social situation. And many just try to avoid this altogether by not using the latrine regularly.”

Every Indian state has diverse social structures, and it isn’t that sanitation coverage has not improved at all over the past few years. Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya and Manipur have performed well in terms of reducing open defecation, although one can attribute this largely to less rigid concepts of purity and pollution.

“There is no single formula to deal with the problem,” says Madhavan. “These five states performed above average in terms of sanitation coverage because of involving community leaders, village administrations and Panchayats in implementation; devising innovative local technologies like toilets made of tin and bamboo in Manipur, EcoSan in Meghalaya and the worming pit in Himachal; incorporating sanitation within the general idea of good health, etc. But the diversity is such that you need flexible approaches.”

Despite promising numbers on the SBM website, open defecation remains a deep-rooted problem across India. Semi-urban and urban areas too are grappling with it, as development progresses at unfathomable speeds and migration patterns change on a regular basis. Chin-chin to TEPK for recognising its potential for sociocultural impact, no matter how it fares.