Clarification: This article inaccurately stated that the Jagannath Temple mentioned is the one in Puri. It is actually a separate Jagannath temple which is also in Orissa. Apologies for the inaccuracy.
I was raised by parents who taught me that before going to bed and after waking up, the first thing I should do is say a prayer. However, a reasonably heavy diet has resulted in me replacing the aforementioned routine with one that is more agreeable to my system. When once I prayed, now I poop. However, watching Narendra Modi incite the ire of all and sundry for opining that the need for toilets far outweighs the need for temples, it’s clear one needs to pick a side, and I for one choose toilets.
My beliefs stem not just from a sense of digestive urgency – but are firmly rooted in India’s historic identity. As I wrote that last sentence I could already hear the gasps of disbelief, after all what is more Indian than Hinduism and, therefore, temples? But allow me to articulate my point of view before you see red (or saffron). The fact of the matter is that the oldest recorded inhabitation of the Indian subcontinent is the Indus Valley Civilisation. And let’s face it, temples were not the highlight of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Toilets were.
According to experts, the health benefits of the Indus Valley sanitation system – of which toilets were integral – might have been integral in curbing the occurrence of disease and sickness which is one of the key reasons cities like Mohenjodaro and Harappa prospered. The mysterious and sudden end of the civilisation cannot be blamed on their lack of temples. To do so, one would also have to ignore the fact that despite a lack of temples the ancient Harappans were known to have a fondness for Shiva. In spite of their fondness for Shiva, they let their heads rule their hearts which is why we see well-planned sanitation systems and not a proliferation of temples in the ruins of their cities.
Unfortunately for us, with the end of the Harappan Civilisation also came the end of proper civic planning which has resulted in nearly half of India’s population having no access to toilets today. In fact, the situation is so bad that nearly 60% of the global population who don’t have access to toilets reside in India.
According to a report by the philanthropic organisation, Dasra, 1600 children under the age of 5 die daily in India due to diarrhoea caused by lack of access to proper sanitation facilities. The same report attributes a lack of access to adequate private sanitation facilities at schools as one of the main reasons why girl children drop out of school. Thus, not only is the lack of toilets contributing to killing children from less developed and economically backward areas, it is also directly contributing to the perpetuation of patriarchy in our society by keeping our women less educated. Toilets are therefore not just a “convenience”, but actually a vehicle for societal change.
The World Bank estimates that India loses approximately Rs 24,000 crore annually due to its lack of toilets and sanitation facilities. This includes the loss of productivity and the spending on healthcare due to lack-of-sanitation-related illness as well as losses in tourism revenue due to the same lack of sanitation. In a country battling poverty, this is a healthy incentive to push for greater access to toilets.
On the other hand, temples have long played a role in stifling societal change as evidenced by the aversion of a temple in Orissa to Dalits until 2006, as well as numerous cases of women not being allowed to enter certain temples due to their committing the cardinal sin of hitting puberty. Also, since temples do not pay taxes, they play little to no part in contributing to the country’s economic growth.
One is amazed at how Narendra Modi and Jairam Ramesh before him face so much flak when they merely suggested the need of the hour.
Another interesting statistic from the Dasra report is that only 41% of Hindus have access to toilets. They lag behind Muslims (60%), Christians(70%) and Sikhs(74%). Since India already has a vast number of historic and celebrated temples, one would expect that Hindu leaders – who claim to care about the Hindu people – would be the ones crowing for the proliferation of toilets. But till now, this has been far from the case.
It’s ironic that while god didn’t manage to bring our political parties together, at least scatology did. Kudos to Jairam Ramesh and Narendra Modi for putting common sense first.