"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Latrines, Those Smelly Things

For four years I worked for the United Nations Water and Sanitation Decade of the 80s  promoting low-cost sanitation in India.  At the time hundreds of millions of Indians either had primitive sanitation facilities or none at all.  Most rural Indians simply used the fields.  From my early morning train window, I could see them popping up like rabbits or meerkats, carrying ‘ablution tins’ – rusted Dalda cans used for anal cleansing. The scene always had a pastoral, even peaceful feel to it.  The cycle of nature was being repeated, dust to dust, food to waste to fertilizer to renewal.  There was nothing offensive or repulsive about it. All business was done discretely and demurely.

Urban areas were different.  In the poorest areas, residents simply went in the gutters or in the narrow sluices that collected runoff during the rains.  Children, not yet having learned proper hygiene, defecated everywhere.  In the early days of the monsoon before the heavy rains washed the streets clean, the streets were fetid, gummy, foul pathways of excrement and slime.

People who had a little more money and who lived in apartment blocks used what was euphemistically called a ‘dry latrine’ – a corner of the courtyard designated for defecation. It was a step up from the sluice and the street – more exclusive and private, reserved for tenants of the building – but not much.  The flies, stench, and nastiness of piles of excrement that accumulated for months was impressive.

If you had more money, you used what was called a ‘wet latrine’, an ingenious affair which consisted of a hole in the floor of your flat.  Your excrement dropped down a chute and splatted on a concrete slab at sidewalk level.  A ‘sweeper’ – a low-caste sanitation worker – came by daily to scoop up the mess into a loosely-woven palm thatch basket, and carry it by head load to a dumping ground – another nasty, intolerably fetid mess somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

For countries like India which practiced ablution, the Pour-Flush (PF) latrine was introduced. In all others, the Ventilated Improved Pit latrine (VIP) was promoted.  The VIP was designed to take advantages of heat differentials and to create convection currents which drew smell and flies up from the fecal pit up through an external pipe to the open air. 

The PF was comprised of a fiberglass pan and trap, concrete plinth, and two pits which were alternated.  When one filled up, the consumer switched to the second, allowing the first to become non-pathogenic compost which could be sold.  The PF was ideal for urban settings and designed to replace ‘wet’ latrines; and the VIP better suited for rural areas.

I was responsible for looking at the marketing aspects of promoting these latrines – how to convince those people using traditional sanitation methods to adopt new, more hygienic ones.  However, the ‘elegant solutions’ of the PF and the VIP were appreciated only to the engineers who designed them.  They could go on for hours about thermal currents, static heads, decomposition times, and waste efficiency. 

Consumers, however, saw things differently.  Installing a PF in an urban residence in India meant that the waste pits would have to be built directly under the verandah, which meant that higher-caste Hindus would have to live in what would be considered the most religiously polluting environment on earth.  There was a point to all this public excretion – it was an economic necessity and it was part of a ritual purification process.  Under this philosophy, one was far less concerned with the consequences of one’s cleansing than with the process of purification itself.  In other words, cleaning up the excrement was definitely someone else’s business – and in particular the outcaste sweepers who had been left out of the cycle of becoming and spiritual renewal.

The VIP was an even harder sell.  When you have acres of open fields surrounding your village, why would you ever want the bother of a latrine?  In principle it had to be cleaned and the building maintained, while the open-air defecation had no costs whatsoever.  More importantly, field defecation was part of a a daily social routine.  You did your ablutions with your friends and neighbors, while in a latrine you were alone in a dark, cramped, and solitary cell.

This was only part of the public opposition.  Many focus group respondents told us that they were afraid that their little children would fall down into the pit.   They would have to find some sweeper to pull them out and since there was no provision in the social caste hierarchy for cleaning befouled children. So then what?  Other respondents told us that it was so dark in the VIP latrine and the drop down into the pit so far that they couldn’t see their excrement which was a country-folk means to diagnose illness.  None of the respondents gave the fly- and odor-less environment of the latrine a second thought.  They lived in an environment that was putrid and fly-infested with cow, goat, chicken, dog, and bat guano as well as human waste, so the VIP was an aberration not an ideal. 

The model PF latrines that we built were dismantled and the ceramic and fiberglass pans – worth more than an entire household’s belongings – were used as flower pots.  The PF latrines and their elegant convection sheds were left to mold, rot, and degrade in the punishing rains and heat of Deccan India.

Rose George, writing in the New York Times (12.29.12) about latrines  notes that the situation is not much improved forty years later:

Many students in India, where around 650 million people still lack toilets, can’t say the same. Most schools I visited had filthy latrines, used only because there was no alternative. Some had none at all. Students and teachers made do with fields and back alleys.

One of our field staff working in Africa came up with an alternative –  a traditional pit latrine with a cover.  To my mind this was indeed an elegant solution.  Dig a hole, defecate in it, cover it up, and when it is full, dig another.  The engineers in my office – the ones who came up with the ‘elegant solutions’ of the VIP and PF – strenuously objected.  They could not deny that the African latrine would achieve the results intended – proper human waste disposal – and would also limit flies and smell; but it was just too damn simple.  It didn’t matter, for in the end just as few people used it as the VIP or PF.  Within days of our trial runs, the covers were discarded as too much trouble, the pit quickly filled up, and no new ones were built.  The dogs and birds returned, hunting for bits of undigested corn or wheat to eat, and flies once again covered the whole mess.

In my career in international development I had worked in the fields of nutrition and family planning (food and sex) and the work was fascinating.  Dietary behavior is a function of a myriad of socio-economic and cultural factors and devising even modest changes in traditional practices was a challenge.  Introducing contraception was equally difficult and stimulating.  These disciplines were dominated by women, and it was extremely pleasant to work and socialize with them.  Entering the world of water and sanitation was a shock.  Toilets, sewer systems, and latrines were not sexy at all.  Sanitation engineering was a male bastion and for some reason these men took it all very seriously.  Whereas my nutrition and family planning field trips were to schools, dairies, and experimental kitchen gardens; and to private clinics for women, my forays for my new employer were to survey the realities of a befouled environment.  I lasted only a few years and went back to my previous life.

During that latrine stage of my professional career my once firmly-held believe in cultural relativism had been sorely tested.  While I could easily accept diverse dietary and reproductive behavior, listen attentively to the most far-fetched theories of disease, and sit patiently through discourses on ill winds, hot and cold foods, spells, bewitching, and astrology, I could never get past the fact that Indians violated the old adage “Don’t shit where you eat.”  How could a whole culture traipse through piles of excrement, walk past bubbling black sludge, smell the overpowering stench of diarrhea without at least covering it up? I tried every possible explanation – people were too poor, too caste-ridden, too uneducated, too politically powerless to address the problem.  None did the trick.  I reviewed culture after culture and later travelled through one urban slum after another; and I kept coming back to India.  I finally dropped my insistence on cultural relativity.  It was simply wrong to defecate so indifferently and so indiscriminately. 

According to the Times article over half the Indian population has no proper sanitation, so things in the rural areas and in urban slums would probably look no different to me now than they did decades ago.  The other half have moved on and up to modern Western living.  The vibrant, exciting, and dynamic Indian economy, finally unrestrained after years of Soviet-style socialism, has enabled middle class families to live well and at or above international standards.  Consumerism is the tide that raises all boats.  If you have money, a new kitchen and a great-looking bathroom are de rigeur in your new flat.  So in a sense my ditching cultural relativity was wrong. The grandparents of these young people manning the phones in call centers in India did their bit to add to the bubbling fecal sludge; but that bygone era is not only distant but remote and insignificant for these bright young things. I simply was impatient.

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