I was dying every moment but nobody can feel that pain,” a teenaged girl told WaterAid India, a charity bringing sanitation to the world’s poorest communities, as she recounted how trying it was when you have no choice but to defecate in open.
“One day, I saw my own family members, my uncle and cousins peeping from the bushes while I was squatting. I was flabbergasted. I can still remember those greedy black eyes,” said the Lucknow girl.
According to a recent survey by WHO and UNICEF, India still has the largest number of people in the world defecating in the open. “Globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practising open defecation,” says the report, released in Geneva, earlier this month.
Hundreds of thousands of such women who are forced to either walk through fields, into bushes or make their way to an overflowing community toilet immediately become vulnerable to harassment, abduction and rape.
On Thursday morning, TV channels showed horrific footage of two teenaged girls hanging from a mango tree, who hanged themselves after being repeatedly assaulted by a group of local men in their village, in the Budaun district of the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.
The cousins, aged 14 and 15, had disappeared from a field near their home where they had gone to relieve themselves, police said.
For a change, the administration in the state led by Akhilesh Yadav, has made quick arrests. But the parents of the girls have demanded a CBI probe into the incident as the involvement of police officers in the brutal assault has raised doubts about the neutrality of the department.
But the problem is not just about the policing. At a time when the country has elected a new government led by Narendra Modi, who is being seen as a revolutionary leader, at least by 31% of Indians who voted for him, it is time to set priorities right.
RSS leaders can debate about the rhetorical issues like the abrogation of Article 370 that gives a unique status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but Mr Modi needs to focus on issues that affect more than half of Indians, especially women, on a daily basis.
In November last year, he told youth during a function in Pune that it was ironic that women in the country had to go in the open for easing themselves in the absence of toilets.
“I am known to be a Hindutva leader. My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is– Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya’ (toilets first, temples later),” he had told the youth.
Well, if that is how Mr Modi thinks then this is the best time to act and devise a scheme that can rid the country of this menace of defecating in open. Unlike the previous government, which couldn’t even build a lavatory for the fear of discomforting its allies, Mr Modi has been elected with a huge mandate. He just needs the will.
Also, unlike former Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who was berated by right wing parties for his remark that the country needs more toilets than temples, Mr Modi again has an edge. These parties can’t bog him down, as he is a product of the same camp. He has literally slugged it out from being just an RSS pracharak to occupy the country’s top post.
Yes, people expect him to build world-class flyovers and highways and create new jobs but the problem of open defecation is neither new nor the one worth ignoring.
He has said that in him the country has got its best labourer, and unless he takes care of this problem, which affects around half of country’s population, he can’t claim to be a common man’s leader.
Few months ago, a woman left the home of her in-laws in Madhya Pradesh and threatened to return only when the husband build a toilet. She even filed for divorce and only after a local court gave a deadline, her husband constructed a toilet.
India needs these women and leaders who can support such brave ladies.