Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Swachchha Narayani: A Goddess We Need

Sometimes when friends initiate discussions on random statements by politicians or are incensed about matters of high politics, I express my irritation with a dismissive statement which I really mean seriously: I think the most pressing policy issue in India may be the lack of public toilets, or sanitation. So I read this old blog entry by Madhu Kishwar with surprise and joy.

But seriously, why do we not consider sanitation and the provision of clean, public facilities to be important? Sometimes my mother remarks that I have been very lucky in my life: all my jobs have been at places with good bathrooms for women. This is no laughing matter. When you walk from Pondy Bazaar on a parallel road to the one we live off, you can follow the stench of urine to find your way. The path has other names but I call it 'Moothram' (urine) Alley. Yuck, indeed, but I persist in doing so in the hope that it will continue to remind us of work we have not done. And all the polluters on Moothram Alley are male. So what do the women do? Women exercise supreme control to the point of illness and disease.

This is a serious issue. It impinges on public health, public decency, workplace conditions, tourism prospects and women's security. This last is not a trivial listing. Women cannot walk down public paths for seeing men line up against walls. That can bar many urban roads and paths forcing women to take the long route, walk further for the same purpose. In Delhi on the JNU road, men don't even see walls. It is disgusting! Men can 'go' free but women must avert their eyes at all times, just in case. And don't offer me street food anyone--I don't even sit by windows in cafes! (And let me underscore, I have choices, others don't!)

More treacherous are reports that come from conflict and disaster contexts, where displaced women are unable to safely access the toilet. They have to walk a long way to reach the toilet and then it may be dirty, lack water or privacy. Women also have to walk by men to reach the toilet and are subject to harrassment along the way. This means they end up waiting to gather a critical mass even to just relieve themselves or that they go out before sunrise or after sunset. Infection and disease follow not from the disaster, but from these secondary conditions.

Swachchha Narayani does not come a day too soon into our lives. And she is not the first divine entity to be summoned to this cause. Many walls in India bear tiled images of gods and goddesses in the good faith that their divinity will secure the wall from such abuse.

In my schooldays, we had a subject called Community Living in which civic values of many sorts were imparted as lessons--do not litter, observe traffic rules, say thank you and sorry and so on. With the introduction of television, we saw short Films Division products that reemphasised the same values. Where are these now?

In Tamil Nadu (and I am sure elsewhere in India), why is colour television more important than public health? And why is the right of males to urinate and defecate at their pleasure the most carefully protected civil right? Is this what will change if there were more women in government? I hope so. In this case, I am willing to start India's non-partisan version of Emily's List, the US organization that supports pro-choice Democratic female candidates' election campaigns.

In this country, there are many problems and many inequities, but in my view, this one stinks the most!