India trying to flush out habit of not using toilets

Ads mock people who pursue trappings of modern life but relieve themselves in public

NEW DELHI • India's government has been on a public toilet-building spree. Now, it's trying to shame people into using them.

An aggressive new campaign ridicules those who are no longer poor but continue to defecate in the open - a practice that remains common in rural India despite its growing wealth and trappings of modern life.

Television commercials and billboards now carry a message that strikes at the heart of the Indian contradiction of being the world's fastest-growing major economy and also where relieving oneself in the open is the norm in most villages.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Clean India" mission set a target of 2019 to end the practice, the government has built millions of new toilets.

In fact, the Indian advertisements mock the very idea that the country is developing.

The tagline says: "Only the habit of using a toilet is real progress."

And the ridiculing is done by children.


Only the habit of using a toilet is real progress.

TAGLINE in an advertisement promoting toilet use in India.

"Uncle, you wear a tie around your neck, shoes on your feet, but you still defecate in the open. What kind of progress is this?" asks a child in one commercial.

Another says: "You may have a smartphone in your hand, but you still squat on train tracks."

Children are also shown making fun of men who buy a new flat-screen TV, refrigerator and a motorcycle but do not use a toilet.

Research shows that one of the reasons for the stubborn social practice is the centuries-old caste system, in which cleaning human waste was a job reserved only for the lowest caste.

Having a toilet at home is still considered unclean by many villagers.

They consider it cleaner to go to the open fields, which can cause water-borne diseases, the second leading cause of death of Indian children younger than five.

This is not the first time that the government has attempted to tackle social behaviour.

Between 2006 and 2012, the authorities gave awards to about 6,000 villages for shifting completely to toilets.

However, many of them lapsed back because there was no incentive to sustain the new practice.

Brides were asked to shun grooms who did not use toilets.

In one campaign, rural men were admonished for making the veiled women in their families defecate in the open.

Critics said it endorsed patriarchal attitudes.

An unintended fallout of the campaign was that in many villages, toilets came to be regarded as important for women, not men.

However, the government is tweaking the definition of modernity a bit. No, it's not that new bank job in the city; not the motor scooter, or the sofa. It is the toilet.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'India trying to flush out habit of not using toilets'. Print Edition | Subscribe