Talking about toilets

  • Toilet construction drive brought better sanitation but seems to have ignored some fundamental aspects
- Deepak Thapa
Talking about toilets

Aug 27, 2014-

Back in the 1980s, while working at Pakhribas, the picturesque agriculture outpost in Dhankuta run by the-then British Overseas Development Administration, the nearest major market was about an hour’s walk away in Hile. Besides being the place to catch a bus to anywhere else, Hile was also where we bought all our essentials if we wanted to avoid the rather hefty mark-ups by the local sahuji. Hence, it was towards Hile that one and all gravitated on many a Saturday, sometimes for no reason other than to savour the famous tongba the ridge-top township is famous for.

Yet, somehow all the sweet remembrances of those holiday excursions cannot wholly erase the memory of the unpleasantness of the approach to Hile itself, especially the final loop gently upwards and into the bazaar. I recall with revulsion the overpowering smell of excreta littering both sides of the final stretch of the trail, and one had to keep their eyes fixed to the ground to avoid that one false step that could ruin the afternoon.

Those were, of course, the days when trekking guidebooks for Nepal would casually point out that the proximity of a settlement could be sensed first by the nose. A lot has changed by now, and the ongoing campaign to declare villages and whole districts ‘free of open defecation’, which comes with the mandatory construction of toilets to receive any kind of government support, has certainly given a much-needed push towards better sanitary habits.

Walking into and around village Nepal has now become less hazard-prone and certainly much more pleasant, just as it gradually did through the 1970s and 80s in Kathmandu itself. But, although admirable, the toilet construction drive seems to have ignored some fundamental aspects.

Flushed by fodder

First, since the toilets are all water-based, one can imagine the state they are in after a few days in places where water has to be carried over long distances. Some form of local adaptation could have been considered. In water-scarce areas, and these are scattered all across mountainous Nepal, perhaps reviving and improving the long-forgotten soil closet (as opposed to the water closet, the WC, that is the standard for toilets the world over) could have been a viable solution. Not only do soil closets not require water but the mixture of soil and excrement could be a valuable source of fertiliser for the fields. A variation of the soil closet is common in the Himalayan rimland, where the ‘flushing’ is done using fodder and the resulting manure is what gives us savoury potatoes and other delicacies from the high mountains.

The only problem could be cultural practices in areas where distinctions between the pure and the impure are still very strong. In a recent article, The Economist cited a survey conducted in primarily Hindu villages in north India and Nepal, which found that defecating in the open was seen as “wholesome, healthy and social. By contrast, latrines were seen as potentially impure, especially if near the home.” Given such an attitude, one can imagine the squeamishness likely at the mere suggestion of physical contact with faeces, even if mixed thoroughly with soil. But, socio-cultural values are not uniform across the country and there could surely be areas more receptive to new ideas, despite the yuck factor natural when it comes to human excreta. Better to try that than have toilets no one uses because of sheer filth.

Second, even where water is plentiful, the stench within is often horrible. Almost all of these toilets are wholly enclosed spaces without any provision for ventilation of any kind. The heat traps these enclosures are, with their invariably low tin roofs, more of the horrible odours are churned out ready for that a violent onslaught on the olfactory senses once the door is opened. Simply removing a brick or a rock from the walls on all four sides could have done the trick, but for some reason people do not seem to mind the wallowing stink.

Public potties

And, finally, I have seen no village with facilities for outsiders, who have no choice but to continue to make use of the open spaces, which defeats the whole purpose of the ‘open defecation free’ campaign. This is equally true of our urban areas. According to a recent report by WaterAid Nepal, there is only one public toilet for every 65,000 people in the Kathmandu Valley. Another survey from a couple of years back could find only 68 public toilets in the three cities of the Valley, and of which only 61 were in order. As anyone who has used these places can testify, not all of them have water systems. Which has often led me to wonder, in a society where water is integral to our toilet functions, how do people do what they have to do?

The larger question is how do people manage at all, particularly in the daytime? This takes me to a story a few years ago on Indian television about a public uproar in Bombay. It seems that a cart vendor selling pani puri, or puchka, was caught on camera using the same lota to relieve himself as well as churn the juice that went into the pani puri. Standing at a street corner dominated by high-rise apartment buildings but without any toilet facilities for the itinerant population that came in daily, the vendor probably had no alternative but to squat unobtrusively in a corner, pee into the handy lota, empty the contents into the drain, and, hopefully, rinse it before it went into the pot of the pani. Too bad he was found out, too bad for all such vendors who were attacked by the outraged denizens of Bombay, but especially too bad for all of us who have so enjoyed this delicious treat without a thought to the (un)hygienic aspect of those selling the stuff all over the northern part of South Asia.

Better bathrooms

Practical innovation should be the norm than what seems to be whimsical declarations of this village or that district to be free of open defecation. Take the example from the Bhaktapur Development Project. In the 1970s, as the Germans began restoring and preserving the whole city of Bhaktapur, one of the challenges was to encourage people to use the newly-built public toilets rather than head out for the open air, often to lanes on the outskirts which the knowledgeable avoided but caught the unsuspecting unawares. (The latter was a common practice all over the Kathmandu Valley, having earned it, in the words of an international magazine, the dubious distinction of ‘Toilet Bowl of Asia’.) The Project soon found out that the womenfolk were still going out into the open, and upon enquiry learnt that the early morning toilet time was the only occasion when they could sit (or, squat) women-to-women and exchange pleasantries, gossip or whatever. So, the Germans came up with the ingenious solution of building female toilets that were circular in design instead of the regulatory ones with individual stalls in a row, and managed to get Bhaktapur women into the loos.

The Germans had the money and the insight to meet a problem head-on. That is the kind of thinking that seems to be missing in our current toilet-building spree. Perhaps some of that will come with the planned entry of India’s Sulabh International into Nepal. The boon Sulabh’s washroom facilities have been to millions across India will in time hopefully be extended to us as well.

Published: 28-08-2014 09:23

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