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A view from the AC toilet

Two recent news items brought out the empty rhetoric of make-believe development, indulged in by our political masters since the inceptio...

Written by Madhav Godbole |
August 23, 1999

Two recent news items brought out the empty rhetoric of make-believe development, indulged in by our political masters since the inception of the planning process nearly five decades ago. The first pertained to the constitution of a high-level committee by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to recommend steps necessary to eradicate completely the inhuman practice of manual scavenging. This had become necessary as a number of state legislatures had not approved the Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The committee is reportedly being asked to consider whether the Act could be enforced in the states without going through the legislative process. The other news item referred to the inauguration of the first air conditioned (AC) public toilet block by the Delhi chief minister. With green and white marble tiling, the public convenience has been built at a cost of Rs 5 lakh. The toilet facilities can be used on a payment of Rs. 2 per person per visit. It was announced that 50 similar toilet blocks willbe set up in the New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC) area which is the heart of the Capital directly administered by the Central government.

The subject of eradication of manual scavenging and carrying of nightsoil as headloads has received perfunctory attention all these years since Independence. When over four decades ago a question was asked in parliament to the then minister of social welfare as to the time by which this dehumanising and abhorrent practice would be done away with, the minister had replied, prophetically and with a straight face, that no time limit can be laid down. This holds good even today.

New Delhi is a city of fads and fashions which get discarded as each new day dawns. The NDMC is particularly notorious for putting up extravagant facilities at enormous public expenditure. There was a time when NDMC was taken in by water fountains. These structures, often ugly, which soon became eyesores, were constructed at each road-crossing. As with all changing fashions, a number of themwere demolished. Redoing footpaths, which are in perfectly good condition, has become an annual ritual, but while redoing them no attention is paid to the fact that they are so high that they can hardly be used by children or the old or the infirm. “Sulabh” toilets (such an expressive term!) were in fashion not long ago. One such toilet block constructed at Nehru Park, instead of being inconspicuous, is more like a monument! Now it seems to be the season for AC toilets. With elections round the corner, any inaugural function should be welcome to a chief minister. It was not therefore surprising that the chief minister found time to inaugurate the toilet with so much fanfare.

In spite of the baggage of Nehruvian socialism carried by the Congress at the Centre and in most of the states for over four decades since Independence, the subject of development of human capital received least attention in India. Roti, kapada aur makan and garibi hatao have remained empty slogans. A number ofcountries, whether in the erstwhile communist block or newly industrialising countries, were able to achieve much more in terms of increasing literacy, reducing infant mortality, reduction of poverty, and provision of basic public health facilities or housing. Against this background, it is indeed unfortunate that dehumanising and degrading existence of scavengers has received such peripheral attention so far.

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The elitist and westernised media in India too will have to share the guilt of overlooking this and similar other vital ills afflicting our society. The media, with its overwhelming urban orientation, is too preoccupied with the middle classes. It would not be wrong to say that the gap in the understanding of real India has inevitably widened over the years. The spread of television has brought home vividly and strikingly in the far-flung rural and urban areas the rapidly growing gap between the proverbial haves and the have-nots.

A few nuclear explosions do not make a country a superpower. A few ACtoilets in plush localities in New Delhi cannot fool anybody, except the self-serving politicians who live in a fool’s paradise.

The writer is a former union home secretary

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