Toilets—an indispensable part of modern, urban life has always been one of the most crucial dividers between the rural and the urban, especially in the Indian context.
Trope? Privacy. Sanitation. Stigma.
Popular discourses have always been constructed and reconstructed on this binary through the absence of modern toilets in rural areas, and therefore their taken-for-granted functional presence in urban settings, in the hope for more accessible public spaces. The rural, which is popularly understood as the “real” India in the global context, henceforth paints a picture of India as underdeveloped and an overtly “unsanitized” country.
Why Rethink Toilets?
The need for toilets comes from modernity’s idea of dividing the private and the public. However, in the case of urban spaces, this strict division is broken and at the same time, reinforced, in order to facilitate private spaces within the public in the form of toilets. And like most other spheres of life, these spaces are not immune to hierarchies, where the rural is seen as the backward and orthodox space devoid of the modern binary between the public and the private when compared with the urban cities and towns.
To “save” the rural, both Mahatma Gandhi and his wife Kasturba Gandhi, preached the idea of personal hygiene and aspired for Indian villages to adopt the system of modern toilets, as opposed to public defecation in the crop fields. This drive towards collective/community sanitation by Gandhis was essentially fueled by the casteist tradition of occupational stratification, whereby the Dalits were expected and forced to clean human waste. Thus, a systematic drive towards westernising India and ridding it of its traditional casteism was marked by the initiative to construct toilets for all its citizens.
However, the contemporary politics around toilets isn’t that simple. While sanitation as a lifestyle and as a discourse, have increasingly received great importance, it is crucial for us to reflect upon the caste, class, religious and gender hierarchies that structure the entire system. Along with these categories of analysis, the new movements—queer and disability rights—have sparked further questions around the accessibility of toilets:
Who builds these toilets? Who cleans them? In their effort to abide by the gender binary, what kind of consequences do non-binary people face? Are these toilets engineered taking into consideration people with disabilities?
In this article, I attempt to look at these junctures of enquiry which pose broader questions about understanding toilets as an intersection for imagining the co-existence of the politics of identities and their varied manifestations.
Research has also found that a large number of women are engaged in cleaning sewage and excreta. The Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization with the mission to eradicate manual scavenging, has found that approximately 98 percent of these workers are women.
Who Constructs The Toilets?
With the introduction of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan within the sphere of governance, and popular media hopping onto the same bandwagon with films like Toilet-Ek Prem Katha, the broader project to sanitize the country—mostly rural India—often become restricted within these spaces. However, on the other side of the spectrum, toilets in urban spaces are collectively assumed to be functional, simply by their existence in the public.
Research has depicted the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan as a successful cleanliness mission—”The Research Institute for Compassionate Economics surveyed 3,235 households in four states in north India in 2014 and 2018. It found open defecation had reduced by 26 percentage points in the four years since Swachh Bharat was launched, with access to household toilets shooting up from 37% in 2014 to 71% in 2018,” reported Quartz India.
However, despite those numbers, the initiative has received criticism from civil society for overhyped publicity of the mission declaring the country as “open defecation free” as well as for manipulating subsequent data, and for failing to provide access to water and sewerage. “New study by a team from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) suggests that 44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan still defecate in the open,“ LiveMint reports. Along with this, toilets, both in urban and rural areas have not been followed up to keep a check on its functionality with respect to water supply, sewerage and drainage systems.
While the commissioning of public toilets is done by the government, the design is conceptualised by our architects. No point in guessing that most of these architects are men who are not sensitised to the intersectional politics of toilets. Their design almost always excludes the consideration of people with disabilities and women and their requirements for various toiletries in the public washrooms. Washrooms in elite places, like malls, theatres and airports etc., are equipped with such facilities. These spaces, however, are not accessible to the lower class. Often, people from the lower rungs of society might even be prohibited physically from entering them.
Who Cleans/Maintains the Toilets?
While such initiatives by the government should be encouraged to certain extents, in order to ensure cleaner environments, better sewage systems and common health, one needs to go beyond these obvious developmental goals and look at the structural arrangement of the system of sanitation. It is important to determine the caste and class compositions of the group of people who maintain the entire system, or in other words, on whose unpaid or underpaid labour is the entire system affixed—the Dalits.
Research has also found that a large number of women are engaged in cleaning sewage and excreta. The Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization with the mission to eradicate manual scavenging, has found that approximately 98 percent of these workers are women. It is of no surprise that these women and their (reserved) labour is exploited. They are given no job security, are subjected to terrible working conditions, provided with menial wages and are susceptible to sexual assault.
How Are Toilets, A Feminist Issue?
There are quite a few things in the world, which are universal to all genders and hence perceived as experiences that do not have obvious manifestations of gender inequalities. Toilets are one of them. When seen from afar as a part of our everyday, it does not readily give away tendencies of gendered experiences. However, if one looks deeper, they would find that even toilets—its architecture, use and accessibility—are coloured with the conventional ideas of patriarchy and consequential gender roles and expectations.
Ideally, the binaries of cities versus towns, or the private and the public is redundant, since most women, irrespective of their locations face difficulties in accessing and using toilets. With the advent of both modernity and feminist movements, women in rural as well as urban areas have started venturing outside the domestic sphere and have increasingly pronounced their presence and participation in public spaces. Although, traditionally in India, women have been socialized into keeping their body and bodily functions private (urination, defecation, breastfeeding and menstruation), the increasing shift from the domestic to the public sphere was not managed efficiently. The public sphere has failed to cater to its women when it comes to accessibility and maintenance of public lavatories.
Although, traditionally in India, women have been socialized into keeping their body and bodily functions private (urination, defecation, breastfeeding and menstruation), the increasing shift from the domestic to the public sphere was not managed efficiently.
While on the one hand, the rural in India has been overwhelmingly seen as an underdeveloped, backward, the “true Indian” space that needs “saving” from the modern, sanitized, Western world, the state of public toilets (not simply the streets but also theatres, malls) in urban spaces have been readily ignored to the point that its assumed as functional and therefore accessible. But most women, including I, would beg to differ. Urban women often choose to hold back their urge to urinate due to the deplorable conditions of washrooms in public spaces. This situation gets even worse for lower caste or working class women, whereby they are even denied access to public toilets. In America, the equivalence of such discrimination on Black women has been noted.
These ill-equipped public toilets lack proper maintenance and facilities of toiletries, water, sanitary pads, etc., leading to a range of everyday struggles for both employed and unemployed women to access spaces outside their homes. Women often fall prey to various diseases including urinary tract infections, PCOS, PCOD, E. Coli etc., due to such unkempt and untidy lavatories, which further escalate a plethora of various health implications.
One of the most common questions that Trans people are often asked is around their “preference” of toilets, tied to the narrow options of either a women’s washroom or that of men. Transgender activists demand for gender-neutral or degendered washrooms since they often fear violence in gendered loos, which may hinder their participation in public spaces. But gender-neutral bathrooms or toilets in India remain a far cry as of now, although there have been attempts of constructing them in certain university spaces, such as the Tata Institute Of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
However, such initiatives are really difficult to imagine universally, since the gendered division of toilets creates safer spaces for women, as compared to gender-neutral spaces, which might endanger women’s safety. The process of degendering public toilets needs to be rethought, keeping into consideration that women’s worlds are anchored in rape culture and they fear sexual assault, especially in public spaces.
People With Disabilities
Inclusivity with respect to spaces, does not necessarily need to be imagined with respect to means of entry, but also should be understood in terms of their architectural technicalities. Disability is one important criteria that is often overlooked by able-bodied people. The designs of washrooms need to facilitate people with physical disabilities or with visual impairments, so that these spaces can be accessed safely and independently by them.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan/Mission, which is India’s cleanliness program initiated by the present government had launched a Handbook on Accessible Household Sanitation for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) which promises various facilities for people with disabilities, for example ramp provisions, braille etc. However, how much of its proposed provisions have been fulfilled is up for contention, since the original project to increase hygiene habits in general has itself faced a few hiccups.
Toilets, often perceived as apolitical spaces, now demand our attention beyond recognizing them just as developmental goals in the third world. It is a space where various intersections of life-worlds conglomerate; caste and gender are the leading categories which shape and sustain the system. This age-old asphyxiating “profession” often turns fatal for many in our country. Therefore, alternate methods of cleaning and maintaining toilets need to be devised, so that women across all social classes and Dalits can be freed from such life-threatening jobs like manual scavenging and could lead better and healthier lives.
Featured Image Source: NY Times