Friday, Feb 03, 2023

But why are we like this only?

The other day I went to see a friend who was doing some research at the National Archives. The new building is really swank and we decided t...

The other day I went to see a friend who was doing some research at the National Archives. The new building is really swank and we decided to go for a coffee to the canteen. Just as we approached the canteen, the invariable stink of the toilets started coming since the toilets were right next to the canteen. Nothing unusual in that. Except this time it got me thinking.

Go to any public building in our country and the first thing that strikes you is the abysmal state of the toilets. Whether the toilets are in the National Archives or in the train compartments of Indian Railways, we just don’t seem to get it right!

I teach at a prestigious academic institution located in the Capital. My department has over 400 students and over 200 staff and is spread over three buildings. The department till recently did not have a single toilet which was clean and fully functional.

But then, our institution some years ago got a new set of administrators. A huge sum of Rs 50 lakh was sanctioned for toilets throughout the university. All the toilets in our department were demolished and replaced with marbled conveniences. In less than a week, they were reduced to leaky, stinky places where the taps had been stolen and the cisterns broken!

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This episode is symptomatic of a larger malaise which exists in all our publicly funded institutions. We are always ready to build afresh but don’t really care about maintenance. Whether it is toilets or institutions, we seem to believe that pumping precious resources into new projects is better than maintaining and fixing old ones. The result is that they both stink!

It seems that we, as a people, are totally oblivious to basic cleanliness in public places. The Indian Railways is one of the few public companies which is well in tune with the reality in our country. Hence, the fans and bulbs in the compartments are shielded behind metal grills. It has also innovated in the design of its Indian style lavatories. These are amazing places, a treat for minimalists: nothing in them except a hole and a handle to hold you steady. One would assume even the most incompetent person would be able to get it right. No fancy buttons to be pressed or contraptions to be understood. But no! Just go into any train and you will see that we can’t even get it right with such simplicity.

Waste disposal has a long history. Archaeologists have found evidence of systems of human waste disposal in dwellings that are even 10,000 years old! In the Indus Valley civilisation cities, there were systems for running water and disposal of waste. Obviously, like most human beings we have developed a strong sense of cleanliness when it comes to our personal abodes. But non-functional and stinky toilets are ubiquitous, especially in that great land where we make a fetish of personal cleanliness and ritual purity: the Indo-Gangetic plain. My neighbor, a devout lady who sweeps her house three times a day, puts her garbage in a polythene bag and throws it out of her balcony into the street. But then, we are like that only!

First published on: 01-07-2003 at 00:00 IST
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