India has many crippling problems. Generally these are widely known and pretty obvious; Indians know about them and acknowledge them, foreigners know about them and complain. The difference is that while Indians see their country in a positive light — it’s home, after all — with its problems as mere annoyances, foreigners can have a hard time getting past them. The problems can unfairly dominate their perceptions of India, but unblinded by fuzzy sentimentalism, they can bluntly criticize some of India’s abject failures as a society.* One of the most glaring of these problems, and one that’s been getting increasing attention lately, is how freaking dirty India is.
WARNING: This blog post goes into some dark, stinky corners, and might not make for particularly pleasant reading.
In recent years, Indian governments and NGOs have been trying to build more toilets and do a better job of maintaining them. Public toilets in India are often lacking, especially in crowded cities, and the ones that are there are often broken or poorly maintained. As a result, they usually range from ‘pretty gross’ to ‘nauseatingly disgusting.’ Most of them are mere holes in the ground. There’s no toilet paper, since (as in most of Asia) users are supposed to clean up after their business with water. But often there’s no water either. And good luck finding soap. As for the room itself, let’s just say some of the pee and poop don’t go in the hole.
Private toilets in India tend to use a rustic version of a septic tank, and they need to be cleaned out frequently or else they stink to high heaven. And who gets the job of taking out the poo? Untouchables — a group in Indian society outside of the caste system and without basic human rights. (They’re legally accorded them, but enforcement is another matter.) They get the dirty work, like cleaning up poop, and that only helps ramify their status as “impure” and dirty. But private toilets are mostly for the rich; poorer Indians have to resort to using public toilets, which can often be overcrowded and rickety. In the slums toilets can cater to hundreds of residents, leading to long queues and awful hygiene. This scene in the British movie Slumdog Millionaire, while an extreme case, does give you an idea of what some of these “toilets” amount to.
Meanwhile, most Indians don’t live in cities, where these slums and toilets are. They live in the countryside. There are usually no toilets there. Instead, country folk poop in the open — usually in a designated field outside of a village, but also on the side of the street or on train tracks. About half of Indians are estimated to relieve themselves this way — and because many of them migrate to cities, they take their habits with them.
It’s probably pretty obvious what the results of this chintzy sanitation system are: widespread disease. Diarrhea and encephalitis are rampant and kill millions of kids; parasitic bacteria and worms spread easily. Many Indians grow up malnourished because they lose so many nutrients and calories through intestinal ailments. The very air in India can be saturated with fecal material, making unprepared foreigners sick just by breathing it.
There’s another, more sinister aspect to India’s primitive bathroom system: misogyny. India also has a rampant and pervasive problem with sexism, and rape is one aspect of that that’s been getting a lot of press lately. It’s a topic for another blog post, but let’s just say for now that it is often unsafe — in either rural or urban areas — for women to go far away from their homes at night. But toilets/poop fields are usually far away from their homes. Combined with the inherent vulnerability of going to the bathroom, this makes toilet trips prime opportunities for rape. Many women struggle to keep it in for as long as possible to avoid the danger, or go in groups. Obviously only by suppressing rape will this problem really be solved, but the correlation between pooping outside and rape or assault is clear.
To India’s credit, some Indians are aware of how problematic this situation is, and they’ve long struggled to resolve it. Mohandas Gandhi took a particular interest in toilets in the various places he visited and recognized Indian toilets as one of the scourges that support Untouchability, one of his least favorite things about India. The government has since pushed to build more toilets and maintain them better, although results have been minimal. There are now more and cleaner public toilets, like these toilets in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and they are beginning to spread into the hinterland. But India is still far dirtier and less hygienic than other countries as poor and poorer, such as in Africa.
At least in part, this has to do with culture. Hinduism teaches that pooping in the open is healthy and good; many Indians look upon it as a social activity, reading the newspaper and having conversations while doing their business. Without flushing systems, the idea of pooping inside sounds gross, smelly and unhygienic. This is borne out by statistics showing that Muslims, despite generally being poorer than Hindus, have higher child mortality rates, and in fact they poop outside less often (42%) than Hindus do (67%). (Christians and Sikhs do it around 30% of the time.) There is also a regional dimension to this which is often overlooked by foreigners: north India poops outside more than south India, and toilet use is least common in the Ganga Valley, which is India’s heartland but also a very poor region. (It is also one of the world’s most densely populated areas, which makes it rife with disease spreading from poop fields.)
Of course, poop and pee on the streets is just one aspect of what makes India so dirty. There is also the problem of garbage. India has long had a garbage problem, but with increasing urbanization, population growth, and the economic boom of the last 20 years, there’s more than ever. There are vast garbage dumps outside of Indian cities (where the marginalized and Untouchables make a living sorting through it), but a lot of the trash just ends up on the road. Drivers throw plastic bottles out their windows; households empty their food waste across the street; old and broken possessions of all kinds end up strewn across open patches of ground. All this garbage and poop causes serious water pollution, fouling the water supplies in a country that’s running low on them already. Poor environmental regulation mean factories regularly pump chemicals and toxic wastewater into rivers.
And once again, cultural practices make things worse. Several Hindu festivals traditionally end by dumping giant painted idols into the local river. The Ganga River outside of Hinduism’s holiest city, Varanasi, is infamous for its cremations, which usually take place on the riverside on floating pyres. Bathing in the Ganga (and in several other rivers) is considered spiritually cleansing, but physically it’s hardly so, considering how much grime, manure, chemicals, garbage, and human remains are floating in the water.
This has given India an odious but well-deserved reputation among foreigners. The sight of an Indian street, with its piles of trash and stretches of unidentifiable but nasty-looking ooze, makes an immediate impression on them, not to mention the frequent odor of diesel fumes, decaying refuse, cow poop, dust, pee, and human poop. Illness is a frequent bane of travelers, ranging from the so-called “Delhi belly” (diarrhea) to prolonged bouts of vomiting. (I experienced both of them on my visit, especially on a horrible night train ride which made me intimately familiar with train toilets.) Even members of the Indian diaspora are often reluctant to go back because of the filth. Beyond the unquantifiable stain on India’s image, the sanitation failure probably costs India dearly in forsaken tourist numbers.
India’s new, activist prime minister, Narendra Modi, has thrown his weight and popularity behind building more toilets. He made headlines in 2013 for saying “Toilets first, temples later” and has addressed the problem more forthrightly than other leaders have, even bringing it up during the Red Fort speech (an important address on Indian Independence Day). In October, he launched a cleanliness campaign, “Clean India,” enlisting the help of A-list political, Bollywood and cricket celebrities and personally sweeping a road in New Dilli, India’s capital. His ambitious goal/wild campaign promise (depending on your interpretation) is to build 100 million toilets by 2019.
It’s a tough task. Beyond the sheer scope of the challenge, there are logistical hurdles. Flush toilets are still a luxury, and most villages don’t even have a sewer system to connect to. Limited water supply means there is a huge demand for dry toilets, and various companies and NGOs are experimenting with newfangled ways to dispose of human waste. And then there’s the behavioral problem. You can lead a Hindu villager to the toilet, but you can’t always make him use it. The thought of pooping so close to the house, in a small, hot, smelly room, is unappealing to most. Many villagers end up using government-provided toilets as storage rooms and keep pooping in the fields and brush. The emphasis on toilets as providing for women’s safety has also meant many men now see them as women’s things.
I realize this blog post makes India seem like a filthy open sewer of a country, and in some places it almost is, but that conclusion would be a stretch. The saddest part of this whole thing might be that India wasn’t always so grungy. The Indus Valley civilization, which is in Pakistan but is where Indian civilization originated, was very advanced for its time, and was especially preoccupied with cleanliness — a sophisticated system of wells, drains, reservoirs, public baths, and yes, even flush toilets, existed 4,500 years ago. Hinduism’s emphasis on purity and cleanliness means that bathing is a high priority. Indians are often scrupulous at keeping their homes clean and share the Asian custom of removing shoes before going in homes or holy places.
And yet… the rivers are sewers. Servants dump poop and garbage on the other side of the street from their masters’ houses. Butts are wiped with the left hand (so never eat food with it in India!). Many cities are just a hot mess. There is more to India than rubbish and filth, and a growing realization that complete disregard for the environment takes a toll on public health and welfare. But, in my opinion, the key problem is just that Indians are used to this. It’s been like this for as long as they can remember, and if the whole country is a mess, why be bothered? (Anyone who’s lived in a male college dorm can probably appreciate the psychology here.) This is where foreigners and the Indian diaspora need to intervene and make it clear that even in the Third World, this is not acceptable. In a country of India’s size, population, density, and destiny of urbanization, the situation is unsustainable. Until India cleans up its act by curtailing outdoor pooping and littering, foreigners will always hold their nose, literally and figuratively, when they visit India.
Of course, this goes for other countries too.