November 19 is World Toilet Day. I believe however that it is a day that does not get the attention it deserves in India. Which is why my current campaign focuses on toilets. You may ask why would a classical dancer embrace a toilet campaign?
The facts speak for themselves: It’s shameful that today 4.5 billion people live without safely managed sanitation and 892 million people still defecate in open. The exposure to human faeces on this scale has devastating impact on public health, living conditions, nutrition, education and economic productivity across the world.
Let me take you back to my childhood days when annual holiday visits to our family home in Kerala were marred by the fact that the toilet was a dark, dingy, tin-door structure hidden among the palm fronds at the farthest end of the backyard. As a child, I felt traumatised in that dark, slimy, and stinking room.
In my four-decade-old career as a performing artist, I have travelled the length and breadth of India, including remote villages and small towns. A spectacular country with amazing sights and people, but always with apologies for toilets; be it trains, schools, community complexes or auditoriums.
It hit me recently that Indians are poorly trained in using toilets in the first place. We may be building structures as part of the Swachh Bharat campaign, but who is training the first-generation toilet users on how to use a toilet?
That is why I have come up with a new toilet dharma that weaves rights and duties and the slogan: “You have the right to a clean toilet, but the person after you, also has the right to a clean toilet.” This right/duty construct is required to change the social mindset about defecation. I am hopeful this approach will create a culture of education about the related rights and duties, which in turn will lead to a better toilet culture.
Let us discuss what entails a clean toilet. Do we value dry toilets more? Is a washed wet toilet our idea of a clean toilet? Both have merits and demerits. But we need to have such discussions. Apart from the use of toilets, other closely linked cleanliness factors such as washing hands after using the toilet and keeping menstrual hygiene need to be addressed.
I am a votary of World Toilet Day because I see it as an opportunity to bring related issues out in the open, even as we battle to reverse our long-standing cultural practice of open defecation.
But only when we start talking out loud on these issues can we hope for solutions to emerge.