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Against many Indian walls the sign isn’t necessary.

I’m just back from New Delhi where I was part of the Tikau Share NGO team that staged an exhibition on the theme of Design Helps, presenting mainly Finnish examples of how designers can provide innovative answers to various sustainable development challenges. Second to our own Dalit village development project in Odisha, the case example that seemed to attract the most attention was Biolan, a Finnish company whose products include biological toilets, a familiar item in many remote Finnish summer cottages which are not connected to the main sewage system.

Biolan biological toilets - a possible solution to India's sanitation shortcomings?

Biolan biological toilets – a possible solution to India’s sanitation shortcomings?

The link between India’s poor sanitation and hygiene and the proliferation of illnesses such as diarrhoea, trachoma and intestinal worms has always been obvious but judging from the interest in our exhibition’s toilet display it seems to be more widely recognized – and not a moment too soon. This suspicion was confirmed when I read an article in India’s Outlook magazine on the subject, confirming that as much as 65% of India’s population, and maybe more, still defecate outdoors. The facilities used by the remaining 35% often leave something to be desired, too.

In our own main NGO target village in Odisha, the sight of a head peeping up above the rice fields from a squatting villager remains evidence of the preference across much of rural India for outdoor defecation. In Delhi I spotted a sign that made the following request: “Would guards and drivers please refrain from urinating in the courtyards.” Presumably it was OK for everyone else to do so, then.

Just as the USA could consider spending millions on bombing Syria weeks before it decided to shut down its government because it said it couldn’t afford to keep it going, so India shows a similar priority confusion when it comes to providing sanitation for its citizens. As the Outlook article points out, the country is happy to invest millions of rupees in new Agni fighter jet aircraft, when the price of just one would be “enough to free one thousand villages from open defecation”.

The toilet issue affects girls, women and (whisper it) lower caste people especially. Women squat in groups to reduce the risk of being watched by men or, worse, raped. As I discovered first-hand a few years ago when I accompanied UNICEF on a field trip to the state of Bihar in north-east India, girls will stay at home rather than go to school if that school doesn’t have a separate, clean toilet for them. UNICEF was successfully advocating and funding separate toilets for boys and girls there, and the children were taking the message back to their parents who were starting to install their own toilets at home rather than simply heading off to the fields every morning to attend to their “business”. Hygiene was another message being conveyed: kids were taught to wash their hands before eating and after visiting the toilet.

UNICEF projects in India include teaching schoolkids to wash their hands before meals and after using the toilet.

UNICEF projects in India include teaching schoolkids to wash their hands before meals and after using the toilet.

I am addicted to India, its culture, its colours, its people, its variety, its beauty, the creative displacement that it offers me as a writer and a photographer. When I am in Delhi I am lucky enough to sample and enjoy the comforts of middle-class India, but this only serves to emphasize the neglect and poverty in other parts of the country. Before arriving in Delhi to help with our exhibition I spent a few days in Udaipur in Rajasthan, described by a friend as “the most beautiful city I have ever been to”. Well yes, it is beautiful, located on the banks of lakes and endowed with handsome palaces. But the banks of the lakes are clogged with bobbing polystyrene and plastic containers and, let’s be frank, lumps of crap. The backstreets are littered with discarded wrappings and cow shit.

A backstreet in Bhuj, Gujarat - but it could be in almost any Indian town or city.

A backstreet in Bhuj, Gujarat – but it could be in almost any Indian town or city.

In a country this size, with the vast range of resources that it possesses, it shouldn’t be left to the NGOs, foreign or Indian, to make the case for cleanliness and hygiene.

Meanwhile, our village has been submerged by flood waters from the massive cyclone that swept in from the Indian Ocean last week. The Dalit – or to use the common euphemism, scheduled caste (supposedly scheduled for affirmative action and funding) – villagers had to make their own way ten kilometres on foot to the nearest two-storey building to escape the deluge and as I write are still without food or water. We are desperately seeking ways of raising funds and sending emergency relief, because they probably won’t get it from anywhere else.

Visit tikaushare.org if you’d like to donate.