Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Between Temples and Toilets: Sanitation Worship in India

Jacqueline Cieslak artfully describes the complicated relationships between sanitation, reverence, and political contrivance in contemporary India. Cieslak focuses on the phenomenon of ‘The Toilet’ and its objectification as artefact and cultural institution. She argues that officials have not simply recruited religious imagery but that sanitation itself has become an object of worship.

MLA citation format:
Cieslak, Jacqueline.
"Between Temples and Toilets: Sanitation Worship in India."
Web blog post. Material Religions. 11 Feb. 2015. Web. [date of access]

When Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh declared that India has more temples than toilets in October 2012, he sparked a wave of controversy that eventually led to his removal from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation less than a month after he had been appointed [1]. Ramesh’s comment was not exactly unmerited: he was organizing a Nirmal Bharat Yatra, or a “Clean India Pilgrimage,” that would raise awareness about water, sanitation, and hygiene throughout North India by utilizing rituals usually reserved for religious activity, such as illustrative dramatic performances at villages along its route. But while his campaign relied on a deep Hindu — perhaps even pan-Indian — belief that cleanliness is inseparable from spiritual status [2,3], Ramesh’s explicit association between the holiest and the most unholy of spaces in Hindu cosmology [4] went a step too far.

Now, in 2015, the public seems more tolerant, or perhaps desensitized: the temple-and-toilet talk has become ubiquitous in public discourse, from references in local newspapers to bold statements by the new Prime Minister himself [5]. This discourse is buttressed by Modi’s new sanitation campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, (“Clean India Mission”), which has been sweeping the country (pun intended) since its launch on the anniversary of Gandhi Ji’s birthday in October 2014.

While critics have argued that Swachh Bharat is not a new campaign but simply a new name for the widely ineffective Nirmal Bharat campaign (the one that got Jairam Ramesh ousted), there is at least a subtle change in the way the campaign is represented. The Nirmal Bharat Yatra promoted sanitation by tying it explicitly to “things Indians love most (mythology, cricket, Bollywood, dance, and song) [6],” hoping, perhaps, that toilets would benefit from proximity to the infectious success of these cultural institutions. Swachh Bharat, on the other hand, posits sanitation development as a nationalist imperative, and makes only one explicit reference: Gandhi Ji. While the Nirmal Bharat Yatra employed a colorful, dynamic logo with a toilet framed by elephant heads and cricket bats, Swachh Bharat is represented by a simple illustration of Gandhi’s iconic, circular glasses with a tiny Indian flag between the lenses.

It is beyond the scope of this article or even my doctoral research project to make claims about the “effectiveness” of either of these campaigns, but it is worth noting that the slight shift in rhetoric from 2012 to 2015 has been accompanied by the proliferation of different and increasingly creative strategies for promoting The Toilet as its own cultural institution in India. In these strategies, rather than riding the tailwinds of more deep-rooted and revered social institutions (like religion), sanitation itself is posited as an object worthy of reverence, and in some cases, worship.

Figure 1: The prayer hall at the Sulabh International campus. 
New Delhi, 2012. Photo by author.

Nowhere is this more evident than Sulabh International, which maintains the largest number of public toilets throughout the country and has launched a number of initiatives to promote The Toilet in rural North India. At Sulabh’s main campus in Delhi, there is a large prayer hall with a giant blue sign that reads: “Sanitation is our religion” (figure 1). Next to this sign there is a quotation from Jairam Ramesh, and — added just after the election in May 2014 — there is another sign with a very simple quotation attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Toilet first, Temple later.” Every morning, around 50 staff, teachers, students, guests, and volunteers gather in this hall to recite a prayer that never directly mentions sanitation, but raises the name “Sulabh” — which is used colloquially throughout India to refer to toilets, a meaning which resonates in the prayer — as the bringer of peace, harmony, happiness, and joy [7].

I attended the launch of one of Sulabh’s first “total sanitation” projects in a village outside Badaun, Uttar Pradesh in late August 2014. This particular village is infamous because it was the village where two girls were supposedly raped and hung from a mango tree after going for open defecation at night [8]. Within a few weeks of this incident, Sulabh “took on” the village and began building toilets — 108 toilets, to be exact. 108 is an auspicious number in several faiths (including Hinduism). Each toilet was adorned with a plaque that identifies its number within 108 (figure 2), meaning that, no matter how many more toilets are built in this village in the future, the original 108 will always stand identified. Furthermore, extra expenses were incurred to paint these toilets a bright blue (the same color as the saris sanitation workers wear in Sulabh, and the general color of cleanliness workers’ uniforms in India) — expenses that will most certainly be spared when more toilets are constructed in the village in the future.

Figure 2: Plaque on toilet indicating Sulabh’s name, the number of the toilet, the name of its owner, and its location in the village. 
Uttar Pradesh, 2014. Photo by author.

When Sulabh’s founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, arrived in the village on the day the 108 toilets were to be launched, three toilets near the front of the village had been decorated with garlands and red ribbons, looking like nothing so much as giant birthday presents (figure 3). Dr. Pathak inaugurated these three toilets by first cutting the ribbons and then taking his own lota — the small pot used to carry water for cleaning oneself after defecating — and using the facilities himself while at least 100 villagers, journalists, local politicians, and Sulabh personnel cheered him on. 

Figure 3: Toilet launch event showing toilets decorated with ribbons and garlands. 
Uttar Pradesh, 2014. Photo by author.

Sulabh is an ideal case study for what might be called “sanitation worship” because it is an organization with a sincere, ideological approach to The Toilet. By this, I mean that Dr. Pathak does not see himself as employing or appropriating religious material for the purpose of accomplishing something that stands apart from religion (the construction and use of toilets). Rather, in Dr. Pathak’s estimation, The Toilet can and should be part and parcel of religion, or at least serve as a locus around which cultural, social, and religious institutions converge (such as marriage) [9].

While I refer to Dr. Pathak’s approach as “sincere,” there are equally interesting approaches that I might call “insincere,” because these approaches are crafted by people who consciously and deliberately appropriate religious material and religious practice in the service of The Toilet without promoting (or even caring about) the religion(s) itself. One very simple, somewhat indirect example of this approach is the practice of affixing pictures of gods on the walls of public buildings in India to prevent men from urinating on them [10]. This is a kind of proxy faith in other people’s beliefs and their readiness to change their behavior for those beliefs — in other words, one doesn’t have to believe in Hindu gods to believe that people who do believe in them won’t urinate on them. 

Figure 4: View of toilet and temple structures painted in the same color. 
Uttar Pradesh, 2014. Photo by author.

In September 2014, I attended a Workshop on Identifying Behavior Change (Nudges) for Toilet Usage in Bangalore. As people begin to recognize that the biggest impediment to achieving “total sanitation” in India isn’t inadequate technology, infrastructure, or resources, there has been an increase in efforts to understand cultural practices surrounding sanitation and develop ways to modify them [11]. In other words, how can we change the behavior of people who choose not to use toilets even when they have proper facilities? This workshop in Bangalore brought together rural sanitation experts from all around India to brainstorm ways of answering this question.

The workshop was held in a small conference room where an entire wall had been covered with photos of several villages in South India where sanitation projects were ongoing. The photos were of a selection of mundane artifacts and scenes from people’s daily lives, featuring a few washrooms, but also kitchens, sleeping areas, televisions, fields, and temples. Participants in the workshop were given time to examine these photos as they were asked to come up with “behavioral nudges” — small triggers that might influence people to change their sanitation practices.

After looking at photos of villagers’ home altars, which featured pictures of gods and elders, someone suggested that villagers be provided with a framed photo of themselves in front of a newly constructed toilet. If it were a nice enough photo, it would be likely that it, too, would end up on the altar, as villagers do not often have the chance to get high quality photos of themselves. With the toilet featured so prominently in the photo, perhaps The Toilet as a cultural institution would also rise in esteem, and people would be more inclined to use it.

It is unclear if there is a difference in the material effects (or, in development talk, the “impact”) of what I have dubbed the “sincere” versus the “insincere” approach. Even asking this question from a development perspective presupposes that the goal of both approaches is to promote The Toilet — which I am not convinced is a fair assumption. Development is a tricky project with a history of coopting indigenous knowledge and local traditions in the service of global capitalism [12]. Yet India has its own grand history of creatively reconciling modernity and tradition [13], which we can expect to be no less the case with what is perhaps the greatest bulwark of modernity: The Toilet [14].

Back in the UP village on the day of the toilet launch in August, a Sulabh employee called me to one of the new toilets near the entrance to the village. Lifting his hands to form a square with his fingers and thumbs, he suggested that, from this perspective, I could get a nice photo (figure 4). I asked him what made this toilet stand out — to me, it looked exactly like all the others — and he pointed to the building just behind it, one of the few buildings in the village that had been painted bright colors like the new toilets. It was a temple. “Toilet before temple,” he told me, grinning.

Notes and References


[2]. Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

[3]. Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

[4]. Khare, R.S. “Ritual Purity and Pollution in Relation to Domestic Sanitation.” Eastern Anthropologist, vol. 15(2), 1962.








[12]. Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity. University of California Press, 2002.

[13]. Singer, Milton. When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

[14]. Moore, Alison. “Colonial Visions of ‘Third World’ Toilets.” In Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender. Edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.   

1 comment:

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