research institute for compassionate economics

How many of us are willing to clean our own toilets?

Written by Payal Hathi on October 22nd, 2014

Sagarika Ghosh’s Times of India blog post this week echoes some of r.i.c.e.’s research findings and addresses a very deep reason why India’s sanitation challenge continues to be so intractable: purity, pollution, and caste discrimination.  You can read the full post here, but here are some excerpts:

“Purity” and “pollution”, said Louis Dumont in his seminal work Homo Hierarchus, are a principal feature of India`s caste system, where the higher you go the “cleaner” or “purer” you become. The lower you are in the caste hierarchy the dirtier or more “impure” you are.

Ghosh goes on to say:

Precisely because cleaning is the duty of the social pariah, cleanliness has become a pariah to our daily lives too. Toilets are “dirty”, to be cleaned by those who do “dirty work”, upper castes are not programmed to clean their own waste because the socially inferior do it for them. We not only need a jhadoo for the street, we need a jhadoo in our minds as well.

From our qualitative study, this same sentiment came through in many of the interviews we conducted.  People feel intense disgust towards the idea of dealing with feces and cleaning latrine pits because feces are considered “unclean” and “impure.”  By extension, those responsible for cleaning feces are considered polluting.  Given enduring caste hierarchies, Dalits, who are called upon to handle human waste, are considered polluted because of this work, and people in higher castes consider contact with them to be polluting as well.

What does this all have to do with latrines and latrine use?  Simple latrines, common in most developing countries, are difficult to find in India because they are considered unacceptable, in part because latrine use means accumulating pollution and impurity near the home.  Pit emptying in India presents a deeper challenge than in most societies because of these concepts of purity and pollution and because of caste and untouchability.  Deeply internalized casteism means that most people are unwilling to empty their own or others’ latrine pits.

One way that people try to get around the problem of pit emptying is by constructing enormous pits, which are essentially underground rooms to collect feces.  Large pits allow people to feel that they’ll almost never have to deal with the feces, escaping the possibility of pollution.  These unnecessarily large pits appear to be the social norm in rural areas, making it socially unacceptable for the less wealthy to build and use simpler latrines that they can actually afford.  Instead, they continue to defecate in the open.

The solution is not for everyone to make latrines with larger and larger pits.  As Ms. Ghosh points out, what is needed is a change in mindsets, to transform what is culturally acceptable and make the use of simple latrines the aspiration of every individual in rural India.