Why do we need a developed India

Hygiene in India
Outhouses that save lives

The construction of outhouses in the 800-soul village of Hirmathala, an hour and a half drive south of New Delhi, has significantly improved life there. | Photo: © Ulrike Putz

How can one make the lives of tens of millions of Indian women more bearable and prevent the death of countless children? It's very simple, says Bindeshwar Phatak: Build toilets.

Doctor R.C. Jah lifts an apple-sized lump of human feces to his nose and takes a deep breath with a look of pleasure: “Black gold”, he says with a smile as he exhales. “This chunk contains phosphorus, nitrogen and potash. It's not dirt, it's fertilizer! "

The excrement that Jah holds in his bare hand is not fresh. It spent several years underground, where it "matured into fertilizer," as Jah says. In fact, the chair looks like a harmless piece of earth. "All pathogenesis are dead. Anything left is good for the environment."

Jah is the scientific director at the Indian non-governmental organization Sulabh, which is committed to improving hygienic conditions in India. And Jah is also a disciple of the sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak, known throughout India as the “Toilet Guru”, who founded Sulabh after walking around the villages of India as a young scientist in the 1960s.

The sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak, who founded the non-governmental organization Sulabh, has been building toilets in the villages of India for 50 years. He is therefore venerated by many Indians as a kind of holy man. | Photo: © Ulrike Putz It was a journey on which Pathak found his calling: "The conditions there were appalling," says the 73-year-old. Pathak decided to devote his life to educating his compatriots in terms of hygiene. For 50 years he has been building toilets in the villages of India. The sociologist believes that it is only natural that he is venerated as a holy man by many Indians. “Belief in hygiene is also a kind of belief. And every denomination needs a leader. "

Around half of all Indians, 600 million people, do not have access to a toilet. They relieve themselves wherever possible, at the edges of fields and railway embankments, in the gutters of the street, on the rubbish dumps bordering their slums. According to the World Health Organization, this inadequate handling of human excrement is the cause of up to 80 percent of all diseases in India, where cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and dysentery are rampant.

The lack of toilets has other consequences for women. Because they are only allowed to do their business in the dark because of their propriety, millions suffer from digestive problems. And then there is the high child mortality rate: Also because their mothers bring faecal bacteria home with them from their visits to the open-air toilet, around 1.8 million Indian children die before they reach the age of five every year.

The link between abortion and infant mortality

The fact that nothing happened for a long time despite these catastrophic conditions was also due to the Indian men: many of them fail to see through the connection between abortion and child mortality. Conversations about physical needs are avoided in prudish India, even among married couples. Many Indians simply don't have the money to install a toilet.

It is only recently that politicians have recognized that toilets mean health and not just convenience. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that "first toilets, then temples" will be built and promised that every Indian household will have a toilet by 2019.

With this, New Delhi is on the right track, says Pathak. "But the goal must not be to build water closets for everyone," says Pathak. Because sewage from over 1 billion people would kill all life in India's rivers, says Pathak. In addition, India cannot produce enough electricity to operate pumps for so much water.

Pathak believes that an outhouse he designed is the right one for India. Dr. Jah demonstrates it in the toilet museum run by the Sulabh organization: a shed with a hole in the floor, a water-saving flush, two septic tanks. “We only use one pit, it takes years to fill up. Then we close it and open the other one. Until it is full, the droppings in the first pit can be harvested as ready-made fertilizer, ”he says, sniffing the lump in his hand again.

Start with plum toilets

In order to overcome the resistance of the rural population, Sulabh's toilet activists always start very small. In 2010 they installed an outhouse in each of the houses of three respected villagers in the 800-soul village of Hirmathala, an hour and a half drive south of New Delhi. The family had to contribute 3000 rupees, about 40 euros, the rest was taken over by the organization, which is financed by donations and state subsidies.

The toilets became an attraction overnight. Neighbors and female relatives gave each other the handle of the proud first toilet owners to do their business behind a closed door for the first time in their lives. For the men it was suddenly a question of honor to be able to offer their wives such privacy. And then of course there was the prospect of the free fertilizer that the toilet owners would soon have available.

A year after the first toilet was built, over 100 of the village's 150 households scraped together the money to buy one too. Every house has had a toilet since 2012. Village life has improved noticeably since the toilets were introduced, says 50-year-old Sahkuntala Devi. "Not an infant has died here since 2011."