Saturday, 22 May 2010

Pissing into the wind

I've had toilets on the mind, of late. First, I somehow stumbled across a wikitrail that led to a write-up of Rose George's fascinating book, The Big Necessity, which delves into the "unmentionable world of human waste, and why it matters". Then, coincidentally, I wrote a short story for Monocle earlier this week as a follow-up to last month's UN study, which revealed that India has more cellphone users than people with access to a proper toilet.


Now anyone who's spent more than a few minutes on a city street in India will be familiar with the unassailable stench of ammonia, and men with their backs to the streets, taking a slash up against a wall. As much as I dislike it - although not quite as much as this guy - I can understand and empathise that really, there's often very little other option to relieve oneself. It's not like builders provide portaloos for their migrant labourers. They don't even provide any form of human-standard shelter, or food, or a living wage, but that's a rant for another day.


According to the UN, roughly half of India's population doesn't have access to toilet facilities. Now at least men have the ability to whip it out anywhere, anytime (and there are actually a number of public urinals dotted across the city). But what about women? They're forced to wait till night time, when they can steal away and do the needful under the cover of darkness.


For my story, I interviewed Anita Jha from Sulabh International, a brave NGO intent on tackling the sanitation issues that others are too squeamish to discuss. She pointed out that while the toilet issue is pressing, it's eminently solveable. To wit, Sulabh has come up with an inexpensive solution for both home toilets and public conveniences that effectively turns the human waste into either organic fertiliser, or biofuel. Sulabh has built half a million toilets across India, and has set up possibly the most effective marketing tool ever: the world's only toilet museum, here in Delhi.


Rose George is another one insisting that human "waste" is actually full of nutrients, and is a rich, valuable and inexhaustible material - but the great sanitation minds of today think it's best to mix it with water and pump out into the ocean. "It's green to burn the brown stuff," she pointed out last month in a NYT op-ed piece.


Of course, for this sort of sanitation innovation to get adopted on a large scale there needs to be groundswell of public support, political will, and oh yeah, lots and lots of rupees. Awareness, understanding and proactivity will help eliminate the scourge of public pissing, not, say, an air rifle.


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