Toilets became a big political issue last week. And, as a crusader for sanitation, I was more than delighted. Long may Narendra Modi and Jairam Ramesh spar over who first said toilets were more important than temples. And, let both our main political parties hasten to make a commitment that the first thing they will do after the next general election is guarantee that manual scavengers will be rescued from their hellish lives and rehabilitated. Those who expect these unfortunate beings to manually clean their filthy waste should be jailed. Next, there should be a nationwide campaign to make public defecation a criminal act and socially unacceptable.
Can we begin, though, by asking why Ramesh did not do these things as minister in charge for sanitation? At this point I need to make a full disclosure. Ramesh is this column’s bete noire. For the reason that it is this man I personally blame for starting the economic downturn by using his tenure in the Ministry of Environment to bring back the licence raj.
So busy was he stopping major projects after thousands of crore rupees had been invested in them, that he did not notice that if he had made sanitation a crusade, he could have become a national hero. His picture could have graced the doors of shiny new toilets across the land and statues of him could have sprouted out of public urinals. He may even have been remembered by those who prefer temples to toilets because our sacred rivers could have become pure again, instead of being the sewers they are mainly because sanitation is something our political leaders prefer not to discuss.
On account of their silence, not only do Indians continue to ‘defecate everywhere’, as V S Naipaul famously pointed out four decades ago, but Indian children continue to die of diseases caused by this awful practice. Indian trains spread raw sewage across the fair face of our dear Bharat Mata because a hole in the ground is what they call a toilet.
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi remind us constantly that the great achievement of their government in the past decade has been that they have given people legal rights to education, jobs and cheap food grain. If only they had added the right to sanitation and clean water, our healthcare bills would have gone down dramatically and the motherland would look less like a continent-sized slum.
Tragic, is it not, that 66 years after gaining freedom from colonial rule, India is struggling to provide that most fundamental of human needs to her people: clean water. Modi pointed out in his mammoth rally in Delhi last Sunday that it was shameful that even in the Prime Minister’s house generators were used to provide electricity because of the hopelessness of our power sector. He could have added that from the Prime Minister’s house to the wretched hovels of manual scavengers, we have an absence of clean water. The worst sufferers are the poor in whose name this government has spent a vast fortune on welfare schemes, that have nearly bankrupted India without obvious results. The next prime minister will have to deal with the horror of empty coffers.
Today, the poorest Indians have the right to cheap food grain, a hundred days of annual employment and the right to prevent their land from being acquired, but not the right to clean water. If this is not a bizarre idea of progress and development, it is hard to think what is. What is even more bizarre is the reality that none of our major political parties has meanwhile noticed the importance of such vital things as sanitation and clean water. That is until last week, when Modi, so far charged with being a leader of the temple crowd, announced that he thought toilets were more important than temples.
This should have pleased the Congress’s leading lights. It should have made them feel more secure about India’s future, that they predict is doomed because of ‘saffron terror’, but it did not. Digvijaya Singh started tweeting hysterically in Hindi, English and in rhyme, and Ramesh asserted he said it first when he held additional charge of sanitation.
Let the crusade begin to change Indian defecation practices once and for all. Instead of promising laptops and cellphones, let the manifestos of our political parties make promises to rehabilitate manual scavengers, build toilets in every rural home and urban slum and bestow upon us the right to clean drinking water. These things could do more to transform our ancient land than almost anything else.
So long may our political leaders squabble over who first said toilets were more important than temples. Long may state governments compete to build modern toilets and may the best toilet builders win in 2014.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh