FOREIGNERS visiting India and Pakistan for the first time are bemused to see so many people relieving themselves in the open. Usually, they are too polite to comment on this practice, but the lack of public toilets in our part of the world was highlighted in the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire .

According to a UN survey, 600 million Indians, or 55 per cent of the population, defecate outdoors along roads, railway tracks and fields. In Pakistan, the figure is lower at 48 million, but is still shockingly high. The whole business brings a new meaning to the phrase 'answering the call of nature'.

It is common in both countries to see men standing or squatting against a wall or a tree. The amount of ammonia absorbed by the soil must make it some of the most fertile in the world. But women have a harder time. Many girls in Pakistan don't go to school because there are no separate toilets for them.

While ordinary people cope as best as they can, our elites have no problem parking at an upscale hotel or shopping plaza to use their facilities. In the West, public toilets are places where the rich and the poor queue up together; few such spaces exist in our part of the world.

One reason for this inequality is that many poor housing estates and slums do not have adequate water supplies. Often, people have to form lines to fill a couple of containers at distant public taps that they then carry back for cooking and washing. Hundreds of millions in India and Pakistan are denied this most basic of all requirements, and so are forced to use whatever open spaces they can find for their needs.

So why can't our governments address this issue after over six decades of independent rule? After all, this is not rocket science we are talking about. Most countries, many poorer than India and Pakistan, have provided their citizens with piped water and waste disposal systems.

The answer, I suspect, is that our ruling classes are basically selfish, and cannot stand the idea of resources being diverted on facilities for the poor. Thus, state schools and hospitals are a disgrace, largely because our elites don't use them. If we had to send our kids to government-run schools, I can bet they would improve very quickly.

In large parts of Karachi, there is hardly any rubbish collection service worth the name. Piles of garbage accumulate at street corners, picked over by human and animal scavengers. Recycling is much in vogue in developed countries, but they could learn a thing or two from Karachi, a city that generates around 8,000 tons of solid waste a day, out of which nearly half is recycled. This cottage industry employs nearly 300, 000 people directly or indirectly.

One major issue surrounding the whole area of sanitation in India and Pakistan is the use of a particular class as sanitary workers. These unfortunate people are the descendants of the 'untouchables' and have traditionally served as sweepers, even though they have been theoretically freed from this occupation.

In Pakistan, an aggressively Muslim nation, this caste continues to bear their ancient cross because other Pakistanis consider it below their dignity to clean the gutters.

As a result of social oppression across most of the subcontinent, sanitary workers are forced to carry on cleaning our bathrooms and our inadequate sewage system.

Even when they convert to Christianity or Islam, they cannot escape their fate. But as their numbers are limited, in Pakistan at least, opening new public toilets won't help as there won't be enough sanitary workers available to clean them. And yet, our good Muslims have no problem cleaning public facilities when they migrate to the Middle East or the West. You can see them with mops and brushes across the world, working away to keep thousands of public loos clean. I suppose when they are abroad, this kind of menial work does not involve a loss of face or caste.

Thus, although Pakistanis insist that we are the repositories of the true faith, we have no compunction in copying the worst aspect of Hinduism when it comes to our treatment of the supposed lower castes. Begums who would be appalled at the thought of using a brush to clean their toilets at home, have no problem in doing so abroad.

Over time, these archaic attitudes have hardened among our ruling classes. Pampered by an army of servants at home, they are horrified at the prospect of doing anything for themselves. Indeed, they take pride in announcing they are incapable of doing any domestic task. I have had guests who have never boiled an egg, leave alone made their beds.

Paradoxically, the intensifying of religious extremism in Pakistan has gone hand in hand with our rigid attitudes towards class and caste. In India, although Gandhi made it a point to reach out to the Dalits, his example has not struck a chord with millions of Indians.

And yet, these attitudes are not universal in South Asia. In Sri Lanka, it is rare to see anybody relieving himself in public. As far as I can tell, while the Rodiya are a marginalised section of the majority Sinhala population, ordinary people have no hang ups about cleaning out their homes, including their toilets. Also, most homes have a water connection, so toilets are not the rarities they are in India and Pakistan.

I am unaware of any NGO that is working to free Pakistani sanitary workers from their caste-based occupation, or any politician expressing sympathy for their fate. But the reality is that until this work can be separated from its social stigma, we will never have enough people entering this profession, and provide a much-needed service.

The reality is that despite widespread unemployment, the vast majority of Pakistanis would rather beg than accept becoming sanitary workers as they consider it demeaning. Until these outdated attitudes change, we will have to put up with dirty streets and the unedifying sight of people defecating in public.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@yahoo.com

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