Challenge of cleanliness: No one solution to fit all

पाम ऑयल मिशन को लेकर नॉर्थ-ईस्ट में उपजी आशंकाएं

“हमसे कोई सलाह-मशविरा नहीं लिया गया। नॉर्थ ईस्ट में पाम ऑयल मिशन ठीक नहीं है क्योंकि मेघालय में हम आदिवासियों का जीवन...

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The 20th Century saw the rise of a new idea, or rather an idea which had existed for generations, but was finally understood and postulated as a conscious process; design. In the rise of this new-old idea (and one which happened primarily in the West), India saw the advent of this thought process through the eyes of pioneers like Jawaharlal Nehru, who brought design to a newly independent nation, and put it to use to aid its development. Interestingly, the designers who he called upon, world-renowned furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, were enthralled and greatly inspired by India’s indigenous design knowledge. It is interesting though that in the past sixty years since the introduction of design in India, there is no counterpart to the word ‘design’ in any Indian language. Perhaps this is indicative of a non-permeation of the design process in the Indian context, or even perhaps an inherent resistance of ‘India’ towards the way design is perceived by its educators and practitioners. Both of these ideas are obviously speculative, but I can think of a contemporary example to illustrate my point; the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; an ‘Abhiyan’ so important, it was printed on the new Rupee notes for posterity. In essence, the philosophy it propounds is simple enough; cleanliness is next to godliness. In action, it has been the biggest and the brightest model (because of all the spotlights) of the current government. But now, after three and a half years from the launch of the program on October 2, riding on the back of Mahatma Gandhi and his principles of cleanliness, one must look around and see where we have reached, then look back to see how we have reached here and then, at last, look ahead and see where one is going.

Amidst all the photographs of politicians sweeping conveniently found plastic bottles from city streets, to inter-city cleanliness competitions, one issue that constantly stands out is how to get India’s villages to switch over to toilets, and that too covered, ‘clean’ and ‘hygienic’ toilets. Vividh Bharti is riddled with ads featuring conversations between the ‘ignorant Indian villager’, who goes to defecate in the open, and the ‘educated Indian villager/urbanite’, who is telling him/her off for doing so. Celebrities bestow moral high ground on people attending to nature’s calls under cover of a roof. A nation’s mindset is being challenged and systematically transformed, but one must stop and think ‘why?’

Why does one need to go into a room to defecate? Why does one need to defecate on a ceramic toilet? Why do we need to get rural India to change how they defecate and how can we do this by integrating modern knowledge with indigenous toilet habits, using which people have been successfully surviving since hundreds, even thousands of years? And if we do get the answers to the ‘why’s’, then we can come to the ‘how’ of it all. And here one needs to only take a walk to see the ground realities of the ‘Abhiyan’.

To give a little background to the claims I make, I have been working on documentary projects that have led to me walking 750 km alongside rivers and through rural North India in the last year. On this walk, I have been made increasingly aware of my own privilege, my urban sense of entitlement, and the fallacy of the assumption of being ‘more civilized’ because of my urban-western education, at the same time understanding the biases of my own design education.

I will start with the ‘how’: how this Abhiyan is being implemented is simple in principle? People are encouraged to build toilets and use them. To build these toilets the government is paying people the cost of production, plus extra money for the incentive. The biggest and the most glaring example of ground-level realities and power politics come into play here. The Pradhan, the head of the village Panchayats, are the people primarily tasked with overseeing this mammoth endeavor. They have to furnish proof of building these new toilets by getting the toilets painted with a date of manufacture and getting a picture clicked to get the financial benefits of the scheme. Some officials might also come for audits of these toilets.

Also, the way the Abhiyan is trying to change rural perception about cleanliness is by equating cleanliness to women and women to honour, which in itself is a problematic relationship and a perception that needs to change. This is an example of how, in the process of trying to solve one problem you reinforce others.

In a small village in the border of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, we found that many people who already had functioning toilets in their homes, especially the wealthier villagers, would proceed to get their toilets repainted, complete with a message of date of manufacture, and then keep the money for themselves, with these toilets also being counted in the official tally. We were also told by other villagers that there was an inflation of numbers of toilets made. height of this was when in a village in Madhya Pradesh, near Khajuraho, we came across toilets which had walls and a roof but no commode inside. Yet there was a sign duly painted on the outside.

A pradhan of a small village near Banda, Uttar Pradesh, told us that to curb these unforeseen malpractices, the government has now been releasing funds in three batches of Rs 4000 each. The first batch will be to furnish basic construction materials and then start work. The next Rs 4000 will be given once the toilet is complete and checked, and the last Rs 4000 will be furnished after three to four months of usage of the toilets. This backfired because the villagers, who were already happily defecating under the stars, now were asked to put in their own time and money into building a toilet that they had no immediate need for, and which is putting a greater financial strain on them, which many of them can’t afford. This is further complicated by the government’s pressure on pradhans to get a certain number of toilets made per month to keep up with government projections. Worse cases of money not reaching the beneficiaries after the construction had started were abundant.

A major problem is the maintenance of toilets once they have been made. We found that many people with toilets would still go to the farms to defecate. When we visited these toilets, these were extremely dirty, with many of them unusable. The problem here is that maintenance and cleaning of ceramic toilets need acids and detergents. This increases the cost of maintenance, which might not be much for urban dwellers who have larger
payscales and easy access to markets which sell these products, but for villagers who work from hand to mouth, this is a luxury they can’t afford. Even if these products are made readily and cheaply available, there are no systems to treat these chemicals, which will then end up in the soil and permeate down to the groundwater, leading to groundwater contamination. This is also no evidence of any training, instructions being given to the villagers as part of the scheme to maintain and clean these toilets, especially with materials that are readily available to the villagers. Most importantly, there isn’t adequate planning for sewage treatment at all.

The other major issue is water. Ceramic toilets need water to function especially to be cleaned. This is a pressing issue in parts of India where water is scarce. With the increasing scarcity of water throughout the country, how does one expect people to maintain toilets if they don’t have water to drink or irrigate their fields? In contrast, flood-prone areas have problems of sewage spilling out during a flood. There are other alternatives to this floating around, but none of them have been actively picked up by the Abhiyan.

Also, the way the Abhiyan is trying to change rural perception about cleanliness is by equating cleanliness to women and women to honour, which in itself is a problematic relationship and a perception that needs to change. This is an example of how, in the process of trying to solve one problem you reinforce others.

These are questions only people who have seen and interacted with these villages will understand, and this is where we are horribly failing; in terms of the design approach. We are constantly approaching rural issues with urban education, with policies constantly in the hands of the urban-educated, who might or might not have ventured into India’s villages. It is important to take a page out of Gandhi’s book; his first act upon returning from South Africa was to tour India’s villages. ‘India lives in its villages’, he said famously. One must let go of the idea that being educated, especially in an institution, gives us an intellectual superiority over people who possess indigenous knowledge developed over generations of trial and error. Western designers have understood these principals, the best example being the two-page love-note to the design of the ‘Lota’ that Charles and Ray Eames present in their India Report of 1958, which looks into how design could help developing nations. They write, ‘Of course, no one man could have possibly designed the Lota. The number of combinations of factors to be considered gets to be astronomical – no one man designed the Lota but many men over many generations. Many individuals represented in their own way through something they may have added or may have removed or through some quality of which they were particularly aware.’

It is this approach to the problem which can ultimately give workable, long-term solutions to the sanitary crisis, and is also the true meaning of swachhta that Gandhiji propounded. One must stop designing ‘one solution that fits all’ and start creating personalized solutions with self-sustainable systems. It is only then can we solve India’s problems, and truly bring design to India.


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