This takes off from where my post To pee or not to pee” stopped. I think we were all in agreement that we need clean public toilets at convenient locations for women to be able to relieve themselves.

I will now take you through two years of my work with villages in Tamil nadu and let us discuss the same issue from a different perspective!

The year was 2007 and I was in one of the coastal districts of the state.  My task – monitoring the use of the toilets constructed under one of our projects.

I reached the first village. Accompanying me was a field worker from one of our partner NGOs. The toilet was freshly whitewashed  with door painted in gleaming blue with all the donor logos painted on it.  Dharmambal whose toilet it was,  was all smiles- “  Madam we are keeping it very clean. See the door is locked” she told me.  I smiled back at her and asked if she would be kind enough to unlock it for me. She obliged and guess what I saw inside ? Firewood stacked up to the roof neatly!!  I collected myself and asked her why it was not being used for the purpose it was intended. The firewood gets very wet if left outside” she grumbled. “But what about relieving yourself”-  I asked. “Oh we go there” she said pointing somewhere in the western direction. “Then why the toilet”  I asked her. “Well, it was being constructed free so why should I not take it” she asked me? Good question!

The next toilet I visited was unlocked. I breathed a sigh of relief.   Locked doors held unpleasant surprises. I opened the door- but where was the pan? Nothing… there was only a hole in the ground! What was the reason I wondered? Had the government contribution for the activity not come in yet? Mr Murugesan my companion in the field explained- “well it is like this Madam.. the District Rural Development Agency is out of funds at the moment. So they asked some of the families to spend their own money and construct. They will reimburse later”. So this family had obviously only constructed to the extent they could with the money given by our organization. I asked for the number of the official coordinating the Total Sanitation Program of the government at the DRDA and called him on my mobile. After I identified myself and got round to the point he explained again about the lack of funds and the request having been sent for more funding. “But what will people do till your funds come “ I asked him angrily. “Don’t worry Madam, these people are not interested in using toilets so the delay will not affect them”  explained this official who had spent over five years in a program whose primary goal was to ensure total sanitation. I must say I was impressed by his conviction ( or lack of it)  !!!!! No wonder the government works wonders on behaviour change…..

Moving on to the third house .. I introduced myself and asked the lady of the house if they were using the toilet that was constructed. “No” she said angrily. “Why? “ I asked her. “ You see the door does not fit properly. We can be observed if someone looks inside” she pointed at a tiny gap between the door and the frame. I pressed myself to look inside and could see nothing. Only a very determined peeping Tom with great eyesight could probably see inside ( and even that I am sure would be coloured more by his imagination than by his vision). So I asked her where they were relieving themselves “ Where we usually do. Near the casuarinas grove” she pointed towards one end of the village.  “You mean out in the open” ? I asked her innocently. “Yes” she replied nonchalantly. “Surprising… considering that you will be completely in the open and anyone passing by that way can see you” I remarked. “That is our problem. When you construct a toilet you should make sure that the door fits without any gaps” she said angrily… Point taken and noted…!!!

I now turned towards Mr. Murugesan- a plump man who was sweating profusely in the heat and in anxiety. “ It looks like there is no need for toilets here” I told him.
“But we need these projects Madam. No one is using the government funding on the total sanitation program If we don’t use it then someone in the government will “swallow” the money and report 100% achievement of targets”  I remembered my experience with the need assessment done six months ago when we submitted to the district administration a list of villages seeking part  funding under the Total Sanitation Program and were told that atleast 50% of those villages had toilets. It was now clear where those toilets must be – probably somewhere in some government officer’s pockets!!!

But jokes apart- addressing sanitation issues in rural areas is a very challenging task. Despite a lot of sensitization ( called “software” activities) people are  reluctant to use the toilets. In Tamil Nadu it is a rather peculiar situation where people come forward to give their names for toilet construction because they see it as an entitlement that is due to them but when it comes to usage it is a different story……!!! Sometimes people are resistant to  relieving themselves so close to their houses. People  often complain about the smell from toilets being a factor that puts them “off’ having toilets near their homes. But that is an issue that is well within their control because if kept clean no toilet would smell.

Usage however is not always a problem. I remember in the same district there were atleast two villages under this project where toilet use rates were very high. When we analyzed the reasons we found that there was an industry coming up nearby with a lot of buildings which were taking up all the open spaces around the village. People were unable to get privacy that a vacant plot offered and with no such open spaces being around close by they were forced to use the toilets. We also found some of the families living in semi urban areas near the district headquarters using the toilets that we had constructed.  Similarly, communities who lived in forest areas were found to be preferring toilets because of the fear of the wild animals around.

Culturally we Indians are a strange lot.  Open defecation as an issue does not seem to affect us when explained from the point of  health and hygiene. There are a lot of theories about education and its correlation with toilet use. In practice I find it is all nothing but theory. People will continue to defecate openly as long as there are opportunities to do so and get away with it. I guess we don’t mind making a mess as long as it is not our responsibility to clean it up. I am in agreement with V.S. Naipaul when he says “Indians eat in private but excrete in public”.  If only we took as much care with our shitting as we did with our eating habits we would be a much cleaner nation


  1. true...being a geologist I know the problems it can you know, we are strange people who wears stupid cowboy hat, carries hammer and clinometer, and visits strange outcrops in the villages...and all our precious outcrops are ideal spots for 'open defecation'....

    however i feel that the problem of health and hygiene has to be something more than toilets...isn't open defecation supposed to be natural thing? the birds do it, the animals do it, and human beings have done it since they came into is suppose to naturally biodegrade...the problem is probably the concrete layer that we made hindering bio degradation, and also the huge population we created...just a thought...

    nice read..


  2. Culturally,shitting in public is part of our tradition.I dont know from when we started to have toilets. Things are improving compared to past.
    Communicating with nature,can we say?

  3. Hmmm...another thought provoking post, Meera. Villages these days are more developed than ever before, but still people publicly defecate. It would be better if people get to use the available public toilets with care too. Leaving the public toilets at their dirtiest for the other poor souls is a CRIME. Just think of the toilets enroute our National and State Highways! Nauseating is the only word i can think of. We Indians do need more understanding here....

  4. It makes for a sad reading. Look at the irony of cell phone and colour TV as a freebie in every household with no private or public toilet facility. Imagine over 600 million people in a country of more than 1.2 billion without this basic facility is a sad commentary on the state of development. The death rate due to open defecation whatever be the reason is very high. Rural sanitation is lagging. It is for the government to tackle on war front with a programme for general awareness to the hygiene involved. Models like that of Sulabh should be tried without seepage of resources at several stages. Even a paid service is better than none.NGOS like yours shoud draw the attention of the government of the inadequacy of funds and the system besides improvement in their measures

  5. This is such a true post.. having experienced it personally.. getting the funds or building toilets is no big deal.. getting the people to use it is the challenge...!! they use it for all the other purposes other than what it is intended for... apart from the case where you saw (very interesting)i noticed another one.. storing drinking water in pots inside there...!

  6. Open defecation is still an issue in my country NIGERIA... but in the rural areas, pit toilets are used due to lack of water, but in urban areas, people defecate behind buildings, uncompleted buildings...under the bridges,,,, i was so embarrassed to see a sign DO NOT DEFAECATE HERE by JULIUS BERGER CONSTRUCTION COMPANY where construction is going on right now am i type, yet there would be feaces there everyday! There are public toilets at strategic places but the idea of paying money to use the toilet is a problem to some!

    Regarding govt officials......I DUNNO THE CHOICE WORDS I CAN USE TO DESCRIBE THEM!!..mschew!


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