Poo(p) story

For the past week I have been knee deep - figuratively - in poo! It all started when some time back a wannabe philanthropist who landed in my life via the pristine greens of the Delhi Golf Course courtesy the husband, informed me of his desire to bring about what would be called at best a poo revolution. He wanted to build 5* toilets across the land, specially for women. It is true toilets and women have of late been connected for the worst reasons possible: rape, following the horrific rape of two teen age cousins. So every one wants to build loos. I second that whole heartedly and hope that the dream of every home in India having access to a toilet become reality and keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem the more the merrier.

In a brillant Ted Talk, Rose George talks about crap seriously. I urge you find 14 minutes to listen to this talk. The figure are staggering and shocking for the likes of us who take a clean, flushable and modern toilet for granted. More than 40% of the world population defecate in the open. 620 million in India still defecate in the open. And it is not simply a women safety issue, the consequences of this open defecation is mind boggling. 50 known diseases travel in human shit. Open defecation is one of the important contributors to malnutrition, and malnutrition, as my regular followers should know by now, is the cause of 5000 children under 5 dying EVERY DAY. So toilets suddenly acquire a whole new momentousness. In a recent study, UNICEF suggest that open defecation is an important threat to human capital of developing countries and a sanitation programme which includes hand washing can reduce diarrhoeal diseases by over 40 per cent and respiratory infections by 30 per cent. Diarrhoea and respiratory infections are the number one cause for child deaths in India. So talking of poop becomes serious business.

But let us come back to my philanthropist whom I met last week and his vision of toilets. Like many he has good intentions but scant knowledge of the reality on the ground. I was somewhat like that 15 decades ago when I started pwhy but was saved by the intuitive decision of only surrounding myself with people from within the community pwhy worked with. I also saw the good sense of listening to them and quickly and quietly burying my highfalutin ideas! Probably the one sensible decision I took.   Had I gone my way, pwhy would have been dead and buried by now. But let us get back on track. The 'vision' that was revealed to me over sips of single malt, was over the top and doomed to fail were it to begin. I listened patiently to the man who told me he had done a study and selected the best 'model' and wanted women to have a 5* loo experience. We are of course talking of urban slum and rural women who defecate in the open. The model was the one that had got the first price in a recent competition organised by known philanthropists. I heard him patiently and at the end of it all I thought I would share my lifetime sensible decision with him, hoping he would accept it. I simply asked him if he had even been to an urban slum and talked to actual and potential users. I thought I had exceeded my 'brief' but was relieved and excited when he accepted and promptly took down my number. I must admit I though he would never call, but call he did.

Yesterday afternoon, under a blistering sun we drove in a swanky car to our Okhla centre where in spite of it being past school time, the staff and some children were waiting for us. After a quick visit to our centre that was sizzling under its tin roof but where students and teachers including a volunteer from the US were busy learning, I asked my staff to take him for a pooh walk. It meant visiting 'homes' and whatever toilet facility existed in the area. David, our very own Boston volunteer, decided to take him to visit one his student's home. The 'home' in question was a sunk in space barely 20sq feet with a tin roof where 6 people lived! There was noway in the world one could place a toilet in this 'home', let alone a starred one!

Next stop the communal toilet block built by the Municipal Corporation. When we had begun our work some 8 years back this block was built but locked. We badgered the local politicos and the block was made functional. This block cater to 4  camps or 1500 people. It has about 10 toilet cubicles for mean and 10 for women. At any given time at least 2 to 4 are unusable because of being blocked. There is poop everywhere and the smell is nauseating. Users have to pay 1 to 2 rupees per use. In a large family it makes a substantial amount per month! In the evening and night women feel unsafe as the place is then surrounded by drunks and anyway at 10pm the place is closed. The maintenance is sub contracted and the contract often given by the local politician to one of his sidekicks. He in turn 'employs' someone who collects the usage money as salary! The place is 'cleaned' by water only. When there is no water the place is simply closed!

I need not say more for you to realise that a large number of these 1500 citizens of this city are forced to defecate in the open. One of the favoured place is the railway line you see in the picture. This poop tour that had begun in a somewhat light mood suddenly become another deafening scream and a grim reality check. I found myself in a time warp, and was again standing on a road in the blistering summer of 2000 where Manu let out his heart wrenching cry that seared my soul and changed my life. I was never the same again.

David and the Okhla girls

Seeing the abysmal and unacceptable state of the public toilet located a stone's throw from my very own centre was a rude wake up call. Had I sunk into such a comfort zone that I had become impervious to the needs of my children? Was it sufficient to gloat over glowing report cards and beaming smiles? I felt very small. Why had I never asked myself how these wonderful children who have made me so proud and brought indescribable joy into my life survived day after day, where they went to the loo at night, where they bathed. The questions are endless and as each one comes into my mind I feel that much smaller. I felt the old Anou come alive again.

I had thought that there would be no more poop tourism. Far from that. The next day another call from the same gentleman and more visits to the loos of Delhi. You can get inured to many things in this land of ours but the state of the toilets in the Khader Resettlement Colony and the Govindpuri slums were horrific and vile. I do not think there are sufficient adjectives to define the experience. In one of the books at Madanpur Khader JJ Resettlement Colony there were three community toilets: the first was locked but the stench was nauseating to say the least, and the reason for it being locked was that the person in charge had gone to lunch. Quite understandable as no one whose sense of smell is alive could eat in that place. The second one was locked and a peek into it showed us that it has been locked for years and completely plundered of every and anything possible. What remained was a carcass!

The last toilet block was in use. It was the pits. Many toilets were clogged, the stench of urine and poop was foul, there was poop all over the place and more where they should be none. In that filth a woman stood in silence with three young children. I do not know how she could bear the stench but I guess humans are tough birds and get used to the worst if it is a matter of survival. I discovered later that she was the wife of the man who had been given the 'charge' of maintaining the public conveniences. These toilets were apparently built before the arrival of the resettlement colony inhabitants. Many of these are from the Nehru Place and Alaknanda slums. They were given between 20 and 12 square yards of land upon producing a token that had been distributed in the V.P. Singh regime and paying 7000 Rs. The state of the community loos was such that in spite of the minuscule plot of land, most of the residents built a 'toilet' some on the roof that you accede via a precarious staircase and making you wonder how old or disabled people poop. It is also evident that it is only the poorest people who cannot afford to build a toilet that have to visit the communal loos.

It is no wonder that the maintenance is so poor. We met the man in 'charge'. A tired looking thin man who seemed to carry the burden of the world on his frail shoulders. In seems that the blocks are built on a supposedly and ludicrous sustainable model as the in charge only gets to keep the money collected from usage 1 to 2 rupees. In that he has not only to feed hid family but keep the loos clean. He is given nothing: no broom, no pail, no disinfectant, no floor cleaner, no soap- nothing! Normally it is a jet of water, if water there is, that is meant to do the job. No only that, not all people pay. Some get so violent that the poor man has been beaten more than once. A woman goon even slaps him every night as he refused to pay her a 20 rs a day commission. On a good day he makes 150 rupees.

No wonder the loos are in such a bad shape!

The Govindpuri slums were worse. Two blocks located outside the slums as there is no space inside. The state of the loos was unmentionable and poor Dharmendra had to forego hind lunch and dinner as he was the 'chosen' one to go in and take pictures. These slums have five blocks fro A to E and each has an average of 500 homes. @ of 5 people per home it means 2500 persons have access to 2 blocks. Come evenings and no one can venture there as the watering holes are close and the drunks a plenty. Wonder where people go.

The question that comes to mind is what is the solution and that is where one is lost. Giving people toilets does not in anyway ensure that these will be kept cleaned and used in a responsible manner. This has been amply proved by now. So upgrading facilities makes no sense if one does not run aggressive awareness campaigns and hope that the penny drops.

In her Ted Talk, Rose George shares an experiment that worked in villages in India. Two identical plates were place at a short distance: one was filled with good food and the other with human excreta!  People sat around and watched. Soon flies appeared and merely went from one plate to the other, as flies cannot differentiate between poop and food. As the flies executed their dance, people looked mesmerised till the penny dropped. There is crap everywhere and open food carts in proximity so what I may be eating is someone else's shit! That was a big no no! Toilets were made pronto.

So what is needed is a campaign where one can make people aware of defecating in the open and this can only been done with everyone on board. In a city it means the local biggies, the women, men and children of course but also the goons and drunks! No easy task. Needs to be tried otherwise you could  build the best loos in the world. In no time they would become unusable.

But it needs to be done if we want the 5000 deaths a day to stop.