IN 2004, nine years before the UN designated Nov 19 World Toilet Day, I visited Bombay to attend the World Social Forum. Early in the morning on the second day of our arrival in the port city, Rabeeya, another member of the Pakistan delegation, and I decided to take a stroll along the beach while our colleagues slept.
As we reached the sandy shores we encountered a bizzare sight. We saw hordes and hordes of what looked like pelicans perched on the edge of the waters. I was fascinated until Rabeeya squealed with horror. What my failing vision saw as pelicans were actually men — hundreds if not thousands of them — squatting on the beach to relieve themselves. I was shocked beyond belief.
Now that ‘access to sanitation for all by 2030’ — Sustainable Development Goal 6 — has squarely placed the toilet issue on governments’ agendas they can no longer be pushed under the carpet.
I am happy about that, for it is now clear to all that even the ‘unmentionable’ toilet has a close connection with the dynamics of power and privilege. After all, isn’t it the poor who have to defecate in the open? Isn’t it their women who wait for nightfall to go into the fields to answer the call of nature?
Hundreds if not thousands of men were squatting on the beach to relieve themselves.
As the issue acquires serious magnitude, I feel deeply for those men on the Bombay beach and the 2.4 billion others all over the world who have no access to a toilet when nature calls. According to the Britain-based charity WaterAid, 700 million of them live in cities suppressing their embarrassment, hurt dignity and feeling of helplessness to defecate in the open.
The fact is that this is a public health issue and Pakistan regrettably is one of the 10 lowest in the list of countries where a substantial number of people do not have access to decent toilets. According to one estimate, 41m people in the country have to go into the open for a very natural function. Small wonder the incidence of infectious diseases is high. That includes polio.
The major factor behind this failure is the same as in the case of all our other failures: to curb population growth, to educate our children, to improve the people’s health status and, above all, to provide everyone with social protection. It is basically the lack of political will in our leaders to provide the citizens what are their fundamental rights — constitutionally, politically and legally. Any ruler with a social conscience who cares for the needs of his people would ensure that these needs are provided in the normal course.
This is also a class issue. The privileged who are endowed with riches and could also have extended a helping hand have not done so. Otherwise there is no denying the fact that toilets are easy and cheap to build.
Not that no effort has been made in this direction. A retired civil servant, Tasneem Siddiqi, the director general of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority, had attempted to do that in Karachi but failed to make any headway after a start had been made. The sponsor — a businessman — lost interest, the DG SKAA retired and the project was all but forgotten.
On the contrary, our neighbours have done very well by building public toilets and thus improving public health. India has succeeded in building 120m public toilets in the last five years. Bangladesh is also making notable progress in this area.
The real problem at the heart of the matter is one of attitude. Although the adequacy and the state of toilets are fundamental to the health of the people, it is not considered dignified to even talk about them, let alone clean them. Ghazal Zulfiqar, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, told me some years ago about how she once described toilets in her course prospectus as the place where class, income and racial inequalities are made dramatically clear.
She confirmed that many of her students (all from elite backgrounds) admitted that they had never cleaned their own toilets or even had a conversation with a woman who cleans toilets at home or in public places. In such a country is Naeem Sadiq, an activist to the core, asking for the moon when he suggests that the government should build 1m toilets by 2025 and make the country an ‘open defecation free’ (ODF) Pakistan?
True, Goal 6 of the SDGs should provide some impetus. But before that can happen, it is important that attitudes are changed, and that is possible only if educators with no vested interests join this campaign to educate and motivate the youth. Ghazal told me that three years after the toilet project, she conducted a feedback survey and found that a large number of the students had begun to interact with their sanitary workers and appreciated the job they were doing. We certainly need more Ghazals.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2019