T is for toilets

In my flat in Mumbai, I have three bathrooms. These bathrooms make us among Mumbai’s most privileged residents. My driver and my maid each have only one bathroom in their homes. This single bathroom makes them among Mumbai’s most fortunate citizens. Many Mumbaikers don’t have access to even the most basic toilet facilities. Every day, in Mumbai’s slums, about 4 million of its poorest residents defecate in the open.

Bombay blogger shout-out: For an insightful, graphic, and disturbing description of open defecation in Mumbai, please read Devashri Prabhu’s piece on the Metrognome blog.

In India, more than half the population defecates in the open, anywhere and everywhere: on the side of the road, on the sidewalk, next to railway tracks. Sometimes, as I walk on the sidewalk, I wonder if the poo is canine or human. For many expats, open defecation is one of Mumbai’s most challenging realities. We don’t have any point of reference. In the US, even our poorest homeless people can still access a public restroom. That’s not the case in Mumbai. Before coming to Mumbai, I had never seen anyone openly defecate. Ever. 

Open defecation is such an endemic health problem that UNICEF has created a social media campaign to raise awareness. They’re asking Indians to “Take the Poo to the Loo” and pledge to end open defecation.

Poo2Loo pledge

Image from Facebook page of Poo2Loo: https://www.facebook.com/poo2loo

The Poo to the Loo campaign is one of my favorite examples of how social media can improve the lives of those around us. The target audience is not urban slum dwellers, but upper- and middle-class Indians with access to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. The campaign seeks to pull Indians out of their apathy to the horrors around them, engage their politicians, and demand change.

As you watch this dual-language video, notice that the boy lives in a nice single-family house with a warm bed, cell phone, and access to a private toilet. But, when he steps outside…

In the video, you see young Indians engineering a sustainable solution. Students at IIT-Delhi, the Harvard of India, created a flash mob experience to drive home this need. Perhaps these students will find a solution to India’s sanitation struggles.

Every day in yoga, we perform the namaskarasana. Most yoga enthusiasts will know this pose as malasana or garland pose. Non-yoga enthusiasts will know this pose as the Indian squat.

Me in namaskarasana at the dog park. My heel's not quite down all the way, but the image gives the general idea.

Me in namaskarasana at the dog park talking to Peanut’s new friend. My heel’s not quite down all the way, but the image gives the general idea.

The other day, when I had both feet firmly planted on the ground, my teacher joked that I was “ready to travel India.” What she did not know was that during our trip to Himachal Pradesh, this pose had already come in quite handy. Many toilets in rural India are squat toilets.

French squatter toilet

Toilets like this one are seen throughout rural India.

Non-Bombay blogger shout-out: This blog effectively describes why I prefer squat toilets when traveling India.

Rural India has higher open defecation rates when compared to urban centers like Mumbai. One day, we stopped for tea in a small town. I asked about a restroom. The chaiwallah pointed me to the public washroom. I ventured over and discovered the washroom was locked, a common problem in India. With no other option, I went with another lady in search of bushes that could provide some cover and privacy. Fortunately, that day, I had chosen a knee-length kurta.

Editor’s note: In the endless debate about how to dress when traveling, I fall on the “dress like a local” side. This experience is one reason why. Those knee-length kurtas serve an important purpose.

After this experience, I understood a little better why the UNICEF campaign is so important to the health and safety of so many of India’s citizens. I follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter and encourage you to do the same. If you’re Indian, please take the pledge.

2 thoughts on “T is for toilets

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