Daily Rhythms Impede Acceptance of the Toilet in India

In Chhattisgarh's Pahidihi, open defecation – unlike the use of toilets – is a familiar entrenchment in the daily lives of villagers.

This is the second article in a four-part series on toilet use in India. Read the first here.

In an earlier piece based on experiences in Mahora in southern Chhattisgarh, we noted how someone who started out as an enthusiastic toilet-user later became ambivalent and stopped using it. The case o fLaxmikant showed how villagers adopt technology when it suits their needs. Consequently, they are also capable of resisting it when it does not ‘make sense’ in their daily lives. They are pragmatic actors – not clinging to ‘traditions’ and open to new things – and yet not ideologically bound by them.

In villages like Pahidihi, which neighbours Mahora, the humble toilet has become a major sign of conflicting desires and ideas.

Pahidihi is inhabited almost entirely by Kamars, recently-‘settled’ nomadic Adivasis who used to be hunter-gatherers but have now become (reluctant) agriculturalists for about a generation. Pahidihi sees very little toilet use (TU). Indeed, most villagers freely admitted, sometimes with perverse joy, that they engage in open defecation (OD). Kanvalram’s family is the lone exception.

When asked about TU by his family, Kanvalram wryly noted, “It is not I who built the toilet. The government built it for us.” He continued, “What can I do, my friend? In my home, my wife is the ward panch. If we ourselves do not use it, then what will the others say?” When asked whether he uses the toilet of his own free will, he said, “I started using it due to pressure from the government, but now it has become a habit.”

Also read: Is India Really 96% Open Defecation Free?

He then contrasted his own TU with the fact that “even Gonds” (from neighbouring Mahora) and “even the women” in his village freely “go out” for their business. His comments challenge the stereotype that Kamars are ‘laggards’ in TU, as well as the state’s top-down, pro-TU push based on OD being a “health hazard”, “unsafe” and “inappropriate’ for women’s ‘modesty'”. While health and safety may indeed be important factors in some contexts, they hardly seem to matter in Pahidihi, Mahora and many other villages, where OD is not seen as a problem requiring intervention.

Kanvalram is one of the few men (Kamar or otherwise) who does household work. He also cleans the toilet, taking turns with his wife. When asked whether the toilet had added to their burden in terms of cleaning work, he dismissed the notion that toilet-cleaning is much work, and retorted by asking whether it was not work to “go out” into the jungle.

He then, paradoxically, complained about the discomfort in going to a toilet that was too small and hot due to the asbestos top that enclosed the space, and even admitted to OD being rational and uchit (appropriate) in such a context. As we had shown in an earlier essaysome Kamars even view the toilet as a dangerous place.

Also read: Solving the Great Indian Toilet Puzzle

Kanvalram then made a point about how OD is part of the daily rhythms of being a Kamar. Being avid small-game hunters, many Kamars (men and women) regularly spend a good deal of time roaming in the nearby forest. As he put it, “Here, the entire jungle is available. One’s ‘work’ is done in one bottle of water. Who will fill an entire bucket of water and go sit in the room (toilet)?”

He further noted that most Pahidihi villagers stay for extended periods of time in their laris makeshift temporary shelters on the edge of the field. He asked, “Why will anyone come home to use the toilet when they can simply go out anywhere in the jungle?” In short, it is OD, not toilets, that is relevant to the lives of Kamars. Toilets do not, therefore, draw much attention from Kamars.

So why does Kanvalram himself use the toilet? As it turns out, he and his wife used to ‘go out’ for some time even after she became a ward panch. It was only later, through some coercion by higher officers of the state, that they both started TU. Kanvalram’s actions are thus shaped by the status of his wife’s official position, their urge as a couple to live up to the expectations of this office and his affection for his wife.

Also read: Dalits, Adivasis Most Likely to Face Coercion to Stop Open Defecation, Study Finds

His admitting to TU as a habit and rationalising it through his actions (taking a role in cleaning and maintaining the toilet, and claiming that this does not add to the burden of TU), is also indicative of a positive view of the toilet.

Unlike some who switch between TU and OD for reasons of convenience, Kanvalram displays a deeper inclination to think that TU is appropriate.  His preferences and behaviour show how he seeks to set himself apart from and a little ‘above’ his fellow Kamars. For instance, he only drinks “English liquor” – unlike most others, who prefer the local brew, mahua – and talks more to schoolteachers who come from outside his village than to his fellow villagers.

Kanvalram is a non-conformist in Pahidihi, and yet appears ‘normal’ in the eyes of his fellow caste brethren (being an avid hunter and doing all other activities Kamar men do). While they do not mock him for using the toilet, he too revels in frequently acknowledging the pleasures and rationality of ‘going out.’ And so, Kanvalram feels that other Kamars do not engage in TU as their daily rhythms make toilets irrelevant.

Toilets, like other kinds of technology, need to ‘make sense’ or be ‘relevant’ in order to be adopted. This means that they need to be part of the daily rhythms of the everyday life of a population. Kanvalram had learned to ‘make sense’ of the toilet, largely due to his position as the husband of the ward panch and his own disposition towards the toilet as a ‘prestige good’.

However, for most other villagers in Pahidihi, toilet remains irrelevant – an object of ridicule or even a cumbersome nuisance imposed by the state. Given their frequent sojourns into the forest and their extended stays in the lari, the demands of TU remain alien to their lives and daily practices. Not surprisingly, when they hear about state officials coming to inspect toilets, they “simply take a cup of water and throw it in the toilet bowl” to show that it has been used.

The emerging picture is that of ambivalence towards TU in Pahidihi. Even the outlier Kanvalram exhibits this ambivalence and reluctance. It suggests that OD is hardly a ‘problem’ in Pahidihi, due to its relevance to their daily rhythms. In contrast, TU remains largely irrelevant to Kamars.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the state’s rhetoric around TU hardly makes for a compelling case in such contexts – of which many dot India’s landscape.

Balmurli Natrajan is a professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey, USA, and visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; Suraj Jacob is at Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur, and visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; and T.G. Ajay is an independent researcher and director, Drksakshi, Chhattisgarh.