Toilet Use in India: Coercion for Some, Convenience for Others

State coercion to usher in toilet use may cause resentment in those who prefer open defecation. For others, owning a toilet is a matter of prestige.

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

In the last two parts of this series, we showed how villagers are pragmatic in their approach to open defecation (OD) and toilet use (TU), and how toilets are not relevant in the lives of some people who therefore do not use it.

Using the examples of Laxmikant and Kanvalram, we briefly outlined the process and context within which individuals come to either engage with TU or continue with OD. In doing so, we saw how TU depended upon factors such as coercion (dabaav, nigrani), convenience (suvidha) and considerations of prestige or status (gaurav), which either did or did not acquire pragmatic relevance in the lives of the individuals concerned.    

In this iteration, we introduce two other sets of individuals to help us better understand the aforementioned factors.

Take the instance of Madhuri of Mahora. A Teli by caste, her household was among the first to build their toilet under the Swacch Bharath Abhiyan (SBA). However, as she explained, they built the toilet mostly for guests who came from outside the village. Family members continued to ‘go out’, that is, practice OD.

Things changed when Madhuri became the vice-president (upa sarpanch) of the village in 2016. Giving in to state pressures which demanded that panchayat officers build and use their toilets, Madhuri too began using the toilet regularly. She quickly became a vocal votary of TU among her villagers and supported the nigrani committee formed to surveil and regulate OD.

Also read: UP Is Fudging Numbers Under Swachh Bharat to Achieve ‘Open Defecation Free’ Goal

However, Madhuri ran into difficulties when she tried to “coercively govern” her co-villagers. At one public meeting, where she chided them for engaging in OD, some of them mentioned they were unable to use their toilets since the septic tank covers had been stolen. When Madhuri claimed that it was not the responsibility of the panchayat to replace the cover, many villagers replied by saying that it was indeed the responsibility of the panchayat since nobody had requested the toilets in the first place – the government had simply foisted it upon them.

Put on the defensive – and perhaps smarting over the show of defiance to her authority – Madhuri meekly presented herself as doing the bidding of her superiors at work. Thus, OD remained unchallenged and TU appeared to be a coerced imposition.

In contrast to Madhuri, who actually does view TU as an appropriate practice for villagers – and does not mind the obvious coercion of the state – Seeradhwaj openly rebels against it. 

Known to be an enthusiastic and defiant practitioner of OD, Seeradhwaj, about 65-years-old and a Teli like Madhuri, turns ‘going out’ into a form of ideological resistance. He says, “In this village, why is there a need for a toilet? There is no space in the city, but here, there is a lot of jungle all around. Then what is the necessity of a toilet? Why is the government doing dadagiri with us?”

The toilet is clearly “illegitimate” for Seeradhwaj, who sees it as an imposition upon villagers. His reaction, and the fact that he is not necessarily viewed as a crank or deviant in the village – even among the social group that has relatively greater TU than others – is one of the clearest indications that coercion does not work in a durable manner and instead contributes to resentment, at least among some villagers.

Also read: Behind Mumbai’s Self-Declared ODF Status, Overused, Inadequate and Crumbling Toilets

While Madhuri and Seeradhwaj are examples of how coercion works to either inhibit or promote OD, stories of other individuals shed more light on why some may choose TU without any coercion.

Giriraj and Rambai are Gonds who live with two adult sons and their wives and kids in one household. Except for one son, all of them use the toilet. Both Giriraj and Rambai had desired to have their own toilet long before the SBA. While he had been the panch ten years ago, Giriraj had the opportunity to travel outside the village to the city, where he saw people having private toilets in their homes. As he put it, in contrast, “Our people were forced to take their dabba (can) and go to the jungle. Since then, my thinking was that there needs to be a toilet in our own homes too.”

They made a pit with their own money but had to wait a few more years for the government scheme to actually pay for the toilet construction. Not having piped water coming into their home, both did not mind the extra burden of procuring and carrying water from the tubewell. The enthusiasm with which this couple viewed toilets made them put in a lot of effort and personal money to build and maintain their toilet.

Although they often mirrored arguments made by official SBA propaganda – about how they did not have to ‘go out’ and sit under the forest cover, nor needed to fear passers-by when they use the toilet – their enthusiasm is genuinely derived from their broad attraction to the toilet as a suvidha, without the need for any coercion by the state.

Also read: Daily Rhythms Impede Acceptance of the Toilet in India

Such an attraction to the toilet is even more pronounced in the case of Netram, a Halba (an Adivasi group, one of only two such families in Mahora) man in his thirties, and the most formally educated person in this set of villages. After graduation, Netram got a job as a schoolteacher in the neighbouring district, where he worked for a few years, but is now back in the village (for the last year) and is looking for another teaching job.

From a very young age, he admits to having felt sharm (shame) at having to shed his clothes (when going for a swim with friends) or going for OD in the company of others. When he was ten, he went to live with his uncle in a faraway town where he began using a toilet, which was inside the home and had plumbing. This allowed him to nurture his sense of ‘modesty’ even further.

Netram is the kind of individual for whom a toilet is a bodily and psychosocial need. He also values it as a prestige good. As if in keeping with his ‘strangeness’ in a place where OD is still the default practice, Netram appears distinct from other villagers. He wears Bermuda shorts and T-shirts (even while doing farm work), frequently using some English words and phrases (when speaking to us and other villagers) and is an avid TV news watcher in a village where almost no one watches the news.

He is our best example of an individual for whom TU has become a habit – being exposed to it very early in life, feeling bodily discomfort with OD, ideologically embracing the toilet and having no need to be coerced.

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.