Since he was elected in 2014, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pushed a strong sanitation agenda on the country. A big part of this has been a widespread crackdown on open defecation, popularized by NGOs and the World Health Organization over the years. Suddenly, poop became very political in India, with millions of rupees allocated to building toilets across the country.
But a few days ago, Dipali Rastogi, an Indian official who was focused on tribal issues, took to the pages of a national newspaper to push back. In an op-ed called 'Some Washroom Wisdom' she wagged her finger at the way the government and the inexhaustible list of nonprofits in India have shit on some habits in the name of progress and adhering to Western standards. Rastogi points out that forcing Indians to build or use toilets without addressing water scarcity is ignorant.
"Now, however, the goras [white people] are saying it's unhygienic to leave your excreta out in the fields. That it causes underground water pollution. That it causes diarrhoea, even malnutrition. We must build a toilet within the house," she writes.
Rastogi points out there isn't enough water to sustain or flush these toilets in a lot of Indian villages—around 774 million people have inadequate access to clean water. Building toilets, then, just becomes a bandaid on a much larger wound, and forcing people to use them without proper infrastructure becomes discriminatory, especially against rural Indians who have coexisted peacefully with fields and forests for generations.
"During the routine summer village visits," Rastogi writes, "the toilet was the khet, the fields. One carried a tumbler of water [to wash]. Somehow it felt good, the wide open spaces, the twilight, and the feeling of having left the stuff far away from your house. Covered in mud or sometimes just left to dry. The scorching sun saw to that. And by the next day it was manure."
Open defecation can be, of course, be very dangerous. An estimated 564 million people India open defecate every day, and if human feces get mixed into drinking water or food systems, it can cause serious illness and death. Diarrhea from poor sanitation is one of the main reasons children die in the country. Human feces can become manure, as Rastogi points out, only if it is free from pathogens, which requires some regulation.
But poorly built toilets with stagnant, unclean water pose just as strong of a health threat—collecting bacteria and attracting mosquitos. And they can be inhuman. Just a couple of months ago I was reporting on polio in north India when I came across a cluster of migrant workers living in makeshift homes behind a brick-making company where they were working.
The company's owner lamented to me that he was embarrassed to bring visitors to his warehouse because the migrant workers—most of them from rural villages in the state of Bihar—would poop wherever they could find space. "I built them toilets right there," he told me, pointing at two facilities. There were two squat toilets built under some corrugated metal sheets, meant for all 100 people in the dusty row of homes.
I think it's dangerous to romanticize pooping in the open as India becomes more populated, and people move closer to open gutters and streams in rural areas. And I've written about toilet programs that work before—usually only when village leaders themselves take charge rather than outside NGOs or government officials.
But forcing solutions that look good on paper without meeting people's basic needs seems like a form of global development colonization. And that will do nothing to benefit the public's health, or their agency.