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"Swachh Bharat"
How India learns to love the toilet

New toilets for India
New toilets for India | © Britta Petersen

Akshay Kumar is a Bollywood star and subscribes to the role of action hero. For his movie "Toilet. Ek Prem Katha" (toilets. A love story) he has slipped into an unusual role. He plays the farmer's son Keshav, who is confronted with a surprising problem on the first day after the wedding: his politically conscious wife Jaya leaves him because there is no toilet in his house.

The story has a real background. According to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2012 more than half of India's households and more than 600 million people did not have a toilet. This means that the emerging market has by far the largest proportion of people in the world who relieve themselves outdoors. Experts call it "open defecation" and see it as a threat to public health.
 
Diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid fever, cholera and hepatitis, high maternal and infant mortality and growth, developmental delays in children are consequences of open defecation. World Toilet Day on 19 November, launched by the United Nations in 2013, highlights this problem.

Mission "Clean India"

But there is good news. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he has been eager to clean up India. "We live in the 21st century," he said in a famous speech on Independence Day 2014, "Has it ever hurt us that our mothers and sisters have to relieve themselves in the open? Can't we just provide toilets?"
 
"Swachh Bharat Abhiyan" is the name of the mission "Clean India" started by Modi - and it shows success. According to government figures, less than 40 percent of Indian households had a toilet at the beginning of the campaign, today it is more than 85 percent. "India is winning the battle against human waste," praises Bill Gates, whose charitable "Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation" (BMGF) maintains numerous health programs in India.

Sceptical reports

But you can say anything on paper. Sceptical reports are piling up in the Indian media. Toilets are built but not used, success stories are glossed over, these are just some of the headlines. Shah Alam Khan of the renowned All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) believes that there has been no "statistically significant reduction in epidemics" since the beginning of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).
 
The BMGF is against this with its own study. According to the report, there are fewer cases of diarrhoea and malnutrition in villages, that are free of open defecation (ODF). An independent study by representatives of the World Bank and the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) recently came to the conclusion that 95 percent of the villages in India declared as ODF are actually ODFs and that 77 percent of the households surveyed have a toilet.

Two toilets for Vijayalakshmi' family

But it is worth taking a closer look. Hirmathla is a village of 2000 inhabitants in the state of Haryana. Only about 100 kilometers away from the capital Delhi and yet another world. The world in which Akshay Kumar's film is set. Vijayalakshmi is 39 years old and lives in a colourfully painted house whose rooms are arranged around an open courtyard. Somewhere there is a generator rattling to ensure that the ubiquitous mobile phone can be charged even in the event of a power failure.
 
She proudly shows her two toilets, one on the ground floor and one on the roof. "Until 2009 we didn't have a toilet and didn't know anything about hygiene," she explains, "but now we're nine family members, so you need two toilets," she says. It wasn't always like that. When Vijayalakshmi was pregnant with her firstborn, a problem that many women who do not have a toilet in India suffer from intensified. They are often ashamed to empty their bowels in the presence of men and keep shifting the passage. Constipation is a common consequence.

A "model village"

"When my son was born, he was extremely thin and his mental development was delayed," Vijayalakshmi says. He's probably been poisoned through my constipation. None of this would have happened if we had had a toilet back then." Today her son is 22 years old, married and has a job at a bank. "Everything's fine," she says.
 
For them the arrival of the aid organisation "Sulabh International" in Hirmathla was a blessing. The NGO, founded in 1970 by sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak decided to turn Hirmathla into a "model village". "When we first came to Hirmathla, the village had 140 households and 20 toilets," says Monika Jain, a Sulabh employee. "Today every house has a toilet, some even more. The number of toilets is 178." This goal was not achieved overnight, but why is it so difficult to promote the topic?

Toilets were considered unclean

"Although there were toilets in India already during the Harappa civilization (in the Bronze Age), we have specific problems," says Pathak. The purity concepts of the caste system led to the fact that only the untouchables (today: Dalits) could deal with faeces. Anyone else would ritually pollute themselves." Pathak's own family was wealthy and from the highest caste, the Brahmins. "In our large house there was not a single toilet, because in the “Devi Purana” (a holy scripture of the Hindus) it is said that one should not relieve oneself near human settlements. Toilets were considered unclean. “
 
Pathak found this absurd. He and his team developed simple toilets in which the excreta are sealed airtight in the double seepage pits. After about two years they are completely odorless and can be used as fertilizer and even as building material. Manual toilet cleaning is no longer necessary. However, prejudices against Dalits have not yet disappeared. Pathak is nevertheless optimistic. "50 years ago no one had a toilet, today it's more than half the population. That's progress!“

There's still a lot to do

Now the government has another problem to address: The "100 percent scientific disposal of solid waste," says Rumi Aijaz, an urban management expert at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a think tank in Delhi. In many cities, the sewage system is dilapidated and urban waste disposal is overloaded. So there's still a lot to do.
 
Akshay Kumar's film in any case, was a great success not only in India. It has been shown in 50 countries worldwide, including China. The popular actor is therefore already working on the sequel "Toilet 2". "We built the toilet, but the story isn't over," he promised his fans recently on Twitter.

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