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Vote for Toilet!

Blog Post3 min read

Indian voters are often asked to vote for, among other things, lotuses, cycles, lanterns, elephants, watches, or hammers and sickles. Six decades ago, when a largely illiterate and unschooled country decided to embark on an experiment in political democracy, images of these items were assigned to various political parties as their election symbols. Voters could see them on their ballot papers, and thus vote without having to be literate. They would also not require assistance while polling, thus making sure that their vote remained secret. Parties and politicians continue to ask people to vote for this or that.

You could see an incomplete list of symbols here, but not find among the symbols something that a lot of Indians lack, and something which we care about: toilets. It is difficult to say if anyone in India would ever vote for a party which had the toilet as its election symbol, but it is certainly true that not many politicians have tried to find the answer.

Anyway, its election season in India, and you may have already read Dean and Diane's post exhorting the Indian electorate to keep in mind the health of Indian children, and in particular, sanitation, while voting. We won't know if the electorate heard them, but we will try to see if political parties in India bothered: by looking at their manifestos.

The Bharatiya Janta Party (Indian Peoples' Party) is supposed to be the front-runner in this election, and in their very long manifesto, the word toilet occurs four times: they promise to "Create an open defecation free India by awareness campaign and enabling people to build toilets in their home as well as in schools and public places" [emphasis original], and at the other three places, they promise to provide basic services to all: "Home, Electricity, Water, Toilets and Access...." Those are definitely not bad promises, though the party does not mention any new policy to achieve that goal, and enabling people to build toilet along with awareness campaigns seems to be what is going on in India currently too. Let that be. If the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) does come to power, people who want Indians to use toilets will remind the party of its promises.

The Congress party, in power for the last ten years (and much of the period after India's independence) also gets it right, when it says that "Almost 60% of open defecation in the world takes place in India. Poor sanitation is a serious health hazard. We will endeavour to provide a functional toilet in every school and every household." Its manifesto also promises to provide toilets along with houses through the Indira Awas Yojana, and say that total sanitation would be among their top five priorities.

The BJP is supposed to be a conservative party, while the congress is more centrist. The biggest party on the left in India is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and their long manifesto, surprisingly, does not contain the word toilet at all. It does have the word sanitation, three times: in the context of providing it to the scheduled castes, in urban areas, and, in tribal areas. A lot of people in rural areas who are not scheduled tribes and scheduled castes defecate in the open, and harm everyone's health. The CPIM, unfortunately, seems to have missed that.

The upstart Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) also did not say many exciting things about toilets or sanitation: it "envisions" that "every citizen in this country will have access to basic needs like food, housing, education, health care, power, water, toilets and other basic amenities", but there are no more details.

Do not get dissapointed by this, though. This is more attention to sanitation than given previously by political parties, and there have been occasions when political leaders have talked about the issue. There is hope.

We leave you with a video about Indian elections that also mentions one such instance, when a big political leader talked about sanitation. Have fun!


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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