All about loos: cynicism versus realism

If there is one topic that has received unprecedented publicity in the last months it has been loos! Unfortunately, the reason 'we' remember the importance of loos are often tragic: rapes, girls dropping out of school or having to defecate in the open even in cities and all related problems the worse in my mind being fatal diseases related to poor hygienic conditions. The reason 'we' think of toilets only at those horrific moments is because 'we' are the privileged 52% of Indians who have access to a loo. Should you be interested in knowing the hazards of open defecation here are some shocking factsA single gram of human faeces contains as much as 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs When ingested it can therefore lead to typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, polio, pneumonia, fatal worm infestation, trachoma, stunted physical development and impaired cognitive function. It makes open defecation a lead cause of diarrheal death; 2,000 children under the age of five die every day, one every 40 seconds, from diarrhoea. These should make us hand our head in shame and scream our outrage, but the reality is that we have access to toilets so why should we waste our time on human waste(sic).

But for the past months loos are the 'flavour' of the day and everyone and anyone wants to set up loos.  The latest commitment came from as high as the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. Yes 68 years after becoming a free nation we are yet to solve our 'shit' issue.

A few months back a modern Croesus came my way and upon learning that I worked for the urban poor stated his desire to build loos. His benchmark was to give the poor the best loo possible. He even went to state that he wanted to make Indians give up squatting and sit instead. Hoping to have a few pennies come my way, I accepted to help this person and in my own realistic way requested him to come and visit some of the existing loos in the slums we operate in. The visit was an eye opener to me though I think our Good Samaritan did not get the picture. My plan was to first try and find out why the loos that already exist do not work and in Delhi we have quite a range: from the filthy loos set up by the State, to the swanky ones made at humongous costs for the Commonwealth Games that have never been used, to the new red ones made by a Transport organisation that seemed locked too! Unless we find out why these have not worked, it is pointless to make new ones. To me it seems not so much the design of the structure but the maintenance, safety and upkeep etc. And the only people who can give these answers are the users themselves.

The state of toilets placed in slums is so bad that one of my staff who lives in such a slum has had to 'rent' a room across the street that has a toilet facility for hide extended family and come rain or fire, if you need to poo then you have to take a walk. Everyone cannot afford such a solution so as it is impossible to even enter the stench infested toilet blocks, you have to find your place in the sun. So to my realist and cynical mind all these promised loos may just go the same way. If I had a say, I would first fix the existing ones and then go on to making new ones that would meet the requirements of the end users.

Should you go to Defence Colony Market or Kailash Colony Market and feel like peeing, then in spite the super fancy loos that were meant to house cafes and flower shops you cannot as these are closed and unused and I am told in litigation. That they were build with millions of our hard earned money does not matter. It never does.

Making more loos in markets or slums makes no sense as they will go the same way unless we audit them and run proper surveys to find out where it all went wrong. If we do not do that, then apart from some pockets becoming heavier nothing will change.