If you are eating right now, do yourself a favor and finish before reading any further. This is not going to be pretty.
We get the newspaper (Indian Express or the Times of India) delivered to our room every morning at our hotel. Yesterday, a random quote on the second page made me do a quick double-take:
“'Earlier, we were prone to infection. My husband and son had frequent stomach complaints. After the awareness camps by people who helped us install these toilets, we realized it was all because we were defecating in the open. But all that's over now.', says -----.”
I searched for and found the beginning of the article. It was above the fold on the front page. Here's the opening paragraph: “In Kakhorda at Tamluk in East Midnapore, life has changed for ----- ------. Her six-year-old son has not had cholera even once in the last three years. Her husband too has kept in good health. No longer does she go to the woods every morning. The concrete toilet, the new addition to their thatched hut, has seen a blessing.” Later: “Gone are the days of open air defecation, embarrassing situations. West Bengal is one state where rural sanitation has taken tremendous strides.”
What struck me the most about this was that these people were not horror-story subjects, they were presented as ordinary, middle-class, suburban Indian citizens. It was no more remarkable than a middle-aged man in northern Illinois describing how he used to have a hard time getting out of the driveway in the winter before the county put more money into clearing snow from the roads.
I guess this shouldn't be too surprising to me. Indian culture used to (and in some places still does) consider cow dung to be a purifying agent; comparatively speaking, it wasn't all that long ago that it was used to clean people's houses here. In many questions issues about sanitation seem simply to be a question of basic education. Not only that, but in the scheme of Indian sanitation issues, the availability and use of toilets is a drop in the bucket compared to say, the combination of the Mumbai open sewer system with the monsoon season. For the sake of readers such as yourself, I will refrain from going into any further detail.
In a country that seems to be concentrating on proliferating broadband Internet, fast cars, mobile phones, and advanced cardiac surgery, it's strange to find such basic needs silently going unmet. You can't have Internet without steady electricity. You can't use fast cars before you make good roads to drive them on. You can't spread mobile phones without a well-developed land-line phone system. And it seems a little strange to be concerned about advanced medicine without taking care of the most basic health needs first.
The good news behind this of course goes right back where I started: the newspaper article I found. It covers the achievements of sanitation efforts in West Bengal. The country is noticing. It knows there is a problem and it is working to solve it. According to UNICEF, the West Bengal state sanitation coverage has risen to 65%, (which may not sound great, but is a great deal higher than the nationwide average of 32%). Thanks to independent NGOs and charities, we can expect things to continue to change for the better.
...reading that quote while eating my breakfast still made for a strange way to start my morning though.