The misty smoke of the plains of north India still hugged the earth. It was early morning, maybe 6:30 or 7 in December 2020. The view was breathtaking. Puncturing the blue-white swirls were little buildings, about 7-8 feet high, topped with asbestos sheets. The occasional tree poked its head above the dense swirling air. Thatched houses poked their straw-coloured heads up here and there. But the little buildings were by far the commonest. They looked strangely out of place in this serene, rustic landscape.
I swooped in for a closer look. Smoke drifted lazily from some. The bleat of a goat wafted from another. Occasionally the smell of shit joined the cacophony of sights and sounds. Ah! These were toilets. The sun poked its head over the horizon as realisation dawned. It was a new day on an ancient landscape, somehow despoiled by these ugly square squat buildings.
[Toilets were] prescribed like a giant pill to cure the ills of the Fatherland caused by its denizens' propensity to shit anywhere, anytime, in the open.
There were lots of them. Outside each thatched hut, brick building or even in the middle of nowhere. The 1-metre square, 7-foot tall greyness of toilets. Prescribed like a giant pill to cure the ills of the Fatherland caused by its denizens' propensity to shit anywhere, anytime, in the open. But used for the most part for something other than shitting.
I'd left this land half a decade ago, disgusted by its obsession with excreta. Potty untrained Indians were exhorted to make toilets. The nationalist government simplistically assumed if they were made people would come. It bribed and browbeat Indians into making toilet— take the money, make a toilet. Puh-leeze.
People being smart took the money, paid off politicians, engineers and bureaucrats, and built one toilet. They shared its photos around, so many could claim the money. The politicians, engineers and bureaucrats grew fat off the grease from so many shitpots. They made the real toilets and used them to store their ill-gotten newly minted ₹2000 notes. Where? In the septic tanks. No tax inspector however empowered was going to go digging for ill-gotten wealth in ill-smelling placed.
So the people bowed and prayed to get their names on the LIST. This list was the thing on which toilet dreams were spun. Once on the list, a person had a window of opportunity to make the toilet, or claim another's as his own. And then claim the largesse. If he failed, the bureaucrat would replace him with somebody who would act fast and pay loose. It was a goose that laid many golden eggs—the Swachh Bharat campaign.
Landing outside a village of scattered houses, some of brick, others of thatch, I wandered through the dusty lanes. Water flowed down some of them, making a thick smelly slush. Others were dry and the dust floated up in my wake. It mingled with the swirling misty smoke. Wreathed in this, I walked undetected through the stirring village. I was an outsider; my mere presence would have roused the village and its dogs. But today the misty smoke cloaked me.
India had a billion toilets now. Billions of rupees spent. Millions of bags of cement, bricks, iron and asbestos sheets wasted. For storerooms.
Each house had a prescribed toilet. Some had many. The doors to some were closed. Most were locked. Peering in through a gap near the top, I saw bags of seeds, cement, fertilisers and stuff I could not make out stacked inside. Some had piles of firewood. Stacks of hay. The occasional goat or sheep. And here, a woman blowing life into the morning fire. A small fireplace with pots hanging from nails in the wall. A perfect little kitchen. Truly, this was the great Indian rope trick for joining the dots.
I floated past toilets with doors closed, sounds of somebody passing gas, followed by squishy sounds of something falling. I tarried a bit and heard water falling—ablutions were being completed. A man emerged looking like the load of the world had fallen from his shoulders. Fresh. Yes! That's what the term meant—getting "fresh" in rural India did not mean launching a love jihad, it meant taking a dump.
With trepidation I continued floating through the village. The story was much the same. Just about one in three toilets had their doors closed. The rest were ajar letting me see the goods stacked inside. This, then, was the result of an over-hyped and under-developed campaign to stop people from shitting indiscriminately.
Back to my craft. I switched on infra-red sensors and voila! Some toilets lit up with orange and red. Most others stayed blue or violet. The craft floated up and over the village. From village to village, panchayat to panchayat I floated. The swirling mists and smoke had started clearing. Time to go.
Returning the next morning at the crack of dawn, I was determined to disprove what I had seen the day before. I switched to infra-red and floated a few hundred feet above, drifting from one village to the next. Nope, just about one in three or four were occupied—I could not make out if it was by a human or animal.
All that the "campaign" cleansed was perhaps ethnic minorities. Corruption leached from the pits of the toilets. And reduced Gandhiji to a cipher.
So this was the denouement of the Campaign by the Powerful Man. Tens of millions of toilets now dotted rural India. There were at least as many toilets as households. Bureaucrats had staked their careers on shitpots to garner brownie points from their political masters. Where the PM led, CMs and DMs rushed in. It was truly CLTS: collector-led total sanitation. But people were not fools to tread there. All that the "campaign" cleansed was perhaps ethnic minorities. Corruption leached from the pits of the toilets. And reduced Gandhiji to a cipher.
People had smartly taken money, made something that looked like a toilet and then went about their business as they had done for years, in fields and forests. The little water tanks outside the toilets were ingeniously used to water cows.
India had a billion toilets now. Billions of rupees spent. Millions of bags of cement, bricks, iron and asbestos sheets wasted. For storerooms. Sure, they were needed especially for people living in thatched houses. The irony of a brick toilet was not lost on the owner of a thatched house. Many people had hocked jewellery, cows, goats, cycles; dug pits and rallied others to their cause. But on balance, the more things changed, the more they remained the same. Sadly, I concluded my thoughts on the recent past. Sanitation is indeed a pain in the ass.