Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Flushing for karma

I was slightly jealous when I read about this Kerela initiative – 'e-toilets' at government medical colleges. These toilets are called Eve's Own for they will reportedly have napkin-vending machines, incinerators, automatic sensor taps, fans and lights that auto-start when you step in. Plans include sensitive doors that open only if the water tank has enough water.

Of course, it is a pity that these are restricted to medical colleges. There is no reason why all public toilets should not be woman-friendly. Even if they're coin-operated, it would be a huge improvement from current washrooms where coins are no guarantee against dry taps, broken door latches, flooded floors, and worse.

Curiously enough, I have often heard it said that “women's toilets are dirtier”. Usually it is women who say this. Having not been in a men's toilet, I cannot compare but I have been to offices and restaurants that have no separate male and female toilets. I found there was very little difference in levels of cleanliness. This must mean that women are either not that much dirtier, or that they become more careful about toilet habits if they know that men will be witness to these habits. Or, men are cleaning up after women (hey, the world is full of wonders!)

Back in college, I recall discussions where girls would swap tales of toilet adventure. I myself recalled how my mother always carried a bedsheet when we went on outdoor picnics. Others mentioned moms who usher kids to the edge of railway platforms, urging them to just 'go'. One girl mentioned that she had witnessed saree-clad women relieving themselves whilst standing upright. This had quite an impact on our youthful imaginations – the possibility of doing such a thing had not struck us before, but in an emergency... Of course! One can and one should!

Over the years, I had my share of fury and frustration. As a young reporter who was always on the move, this was anxiety number one – how far was the nearest loo? I remember times when I was out on assignment in residential colonies, and there was not one public toilet in the area. I waited hours before an option presented itself, then I'd be lucky if the door was not locked. If there was running water, I felt positively blessed.

All Indian women are familiar with this sort of panic, regardless of whether they are 'working' women or not. For one, there is no guarantee that there is a toilet even in the house. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 3), only 26 percent of rural India had access to sanitation. A Unicef report estimates that 54 percent of India does not have access to clean, safe toilets. Hundreds of millions live in mortal terror of – at worst – an attack by human or animal or insect, and – at least – the fear of infections. Things are not much better in cities where there are no semi-discreet woods or rocks or fields, so you could just go under the open sky.

Life is hard enough without having to worry about how much water you can afford to drink before you step outdoors. Many women endorse glassy air-conditioned malls just for their promise of usable toilets.

I have personally lived with the panic for so long, it has made me a believer of sorts. I worry a lot about toilet karma these days. If it is true that what goes around comes around, I better be careful and leave a toilet as clean as I want to find it. So help me god!

First published here

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