Hygiene in India Squat toilets that save lives

Life became much easier: 50 years old Sahkuntala Devi infront of her house in the village of Hirmathala, 1,5 hrs south of Delhi. She got the first toilet of the village installed by Sulabh in 2010.
Life became much easier: 50 years old Sahkuntala Devi infront of her house in the village of Hirmathala, 1,5 hrs south of Delhi. She got the first toilet of the village installed by Sulabh in 2010. | Photo: © Ulrike Putz

How can one ease the lives of millions of Indian women and prevent the deaths of countless children? Very simple, says Bindeshwar Pathak: Build toilets. 

Doctor R.C. Jha puts an apple-sized lump of human excrement to his nose and inhales deeply in the manner of an excited gourmand: ‘Black gold’, he says smiling and exhaling at the same time. ‘This lump contains phosphorus, nitrogen and potash. This is not waste, it’s fertiliser!’

The excreta Dr Jha is holding in his naked hand is not fresh. It has spent several years under the ground where it has ‘matured into fertiliser’, as Jha puts it. The stool does indeed look like a harmless clump of dirt. ‘The pathogens are dead. All that is left is goodness.’
 
Jha is the chief scientist at Sulabh, the Indian non-governmental organisation committed to improving hygienic conditions in India. And Jha is a disciple of Bindeshwar Pathak, the renowned sociologist, known throughout India as the ‘toilet guru’. Pathak founded Sulabh after doing jobs as a young scientist in rural India.

Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of the NGO Sulabh, has been building toilets in rural India since 50 years. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of the NGO Sulabh, has been building toilets in rural India since 50 years. | Photo: © Ulrike Putz This is where Pathak found his calling: ‘The conditions were appalling’, says the 73-year-old. He then decided to devote his life to educating his fellow country people on hygiene and has been building toilets in Indian villages for 50 years. For the sociologist, it is only natural that many Indians revere him as a saint. ‘Faith in hygiene is after all also a kind of faith. And every faith community needs a leader.’
 
About half of India’s population, 600 million people, have no access to a toilet. They relieve themselves wherever they can, by fields and railway embankments, in street gutters, in the garbage dumps bordering their slums. According to the World Health Organization, the improper treatment of human waste accounts for up to 80% of all diseases in India where cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery are rampant.
 
For women, the lack of toilets has other consequences too. As decorum demands that they do their business in the dark, millions suffer from digestive problems. Added to this is the high child mortality rate. Each year around 1.8 million Indian children die before reaching the age of five, one of the reasons being the faecal bacteria brought back to the homes by the mothers from their visits to the open-air toilets. 

The connection between a toilet and child mortality

That despite these shocking circumstances nothing was done for a long time, was also due to the men in India: many of them do not see the connection between a toilet and child mortality. Physical needs are not discussed in India’s prudish society, not even among married couples. And many Indians simply do not have the money to install a toilet.
 
Not until recently did politicians acknowledge the fact that toilets mean health and not just comfort. Prime Minister Narendara Modi announced that he would build ‘toilets before temples’ and promised that every Indian household would have a toilet by 2019. According to Pathak, while this puts New Delhi on the right track, ‘building water closets for all should not be the goal.’ Wastewater from over a billion people would kill all life in India’s rivers. Besides, India could never produce enough electricity to operate the pumps required for so much water.
 
Pathak believes that the squat toilet developed by him is the right one for India. In the toilet museum run by the Sulabh organisation, Dr Jha demonstrates how it works: a shed with a hole in the ground, a water-saving flush, two pits. ‘We only use one pit, it takes years to fill up. We then seal it and open the next one. By the time the second pit is full, the excreta in the first one is ready to be “harvested”’, he says, taking another sniff at the lump in his hand. 

Start with squat toilet

To overcome resistance from villagers, the Sulabh toilet activists always start small. The village of Hirmathala is a 90-minute drive south of New Delhi. Home to 800 souls, in 2010 one squat toilet was installed in each of three houses belonging to respected members of the community. Rs 3,000 (around EUR 40) is what the family had to contribute, the rest was borne by the organisation which is funded by donations and public money.
 
The toilets became an attraction overnight. Women neighbours and relatives flocked to the proud owners of the first toilets ­– for the very first time they could do their business behind a closed door. For the men, to be able to offer their women such privacy was suddenly a question of honour. And then there was, of course, also the prospect of getting free fertilizer which the toilet owners would soon have.
 
A year after the first toilet was built, more than 100 of the 150 households in the villages scraped together the money for a toilet of their own. Now each house has had its own toilet since 2012. There has been a noticeable improvement in village life since the toilets were introduced, says 50-year-old Shakuntala Devi. ‘No babies have died since 2011.’