The 'call' of the fields

This week, whilst in the boondocks of Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, I had this strange feeling that something was off. Soon I realised what it was. While everywhere there were large billboards emblazoned with slogans of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and newly constructed outdoor toilets were visible in many houses — I saw a disproportionate number of people emerging from the woods carrying that telltale empty plastic bottle. Women chattered gaily in large groups that periodically disappeared discreetly behind the trees and into the mustard fields. Young boys were playing cricket with the bottles they had just emptied. In the meantime, the toilets constructed by the government stood there, unused.

Don’t they work? I asked Lalit Kumar, my local host. The famous Awadhi hospitality immediately kicked in. “You want to go,” he asked. “Please use it, it’s very clean.” And clean it was. Why didn’t they use their lovely new loos, I asked? Kumar laughed good-naturedly. He took me to the local tea shop where dozens of people offered dozens of reasons why they preferred to answer nature’s call in natural surroundings instead of in toilets.

“Over 75 per cent of our village likes to go to the fields,” Ram Pal Rawat, a farmer said. “That’s what they’re used to and that’s what they like.” In fact, their neighbouring village had even more toilets than they did. “There too, most prefer not to use them,” he said. What about the women? I asked. The government had built pink toilets for them everywhere and called them samman ghar or honour houses. “Our daily gossip sessions in the field would come to an end if we started using bathrooms,” an old lady exclaimed. “Besides, outdoors is much cleaner than indoors.”

As we drank steaming cups of tea, someone came up with the strangest reason for using his loo only sparingly. “When the weather is good, I insist that my family defecates in the open so that we can make our septic tank last longer before it overflows,” said Tej Narain, another farmer. It turned out that many others also used their loos only when the weather was bad or if they were sick. Soon, the people who liked to do their “jobs” outdoors anyway, said that preserving their septic tanks was the reason why they didn’t use their toilets.

I hastened to point out that the new toilets had been built on the twin pit composting technology. They could use their loos all the time and they’d never fill up. Narain said that he’d heard about this but didn’t quite believe it. “Long ago, a septic tank overflowed in the village,” he said. “No labourers were available, so we had to clean it ourselves and I’ll never forget the stink.”

His friends and neighbours concurred. “Who knows how long these composting pits will work anyway?” one said. “Even if they work, who’ll use that compost anyway?” asked another.

Just then lightening lit up the clouds overhead and it started raining. The tea party broke up as we all hastened for cover. As we left, I saw the light in an outdoor toilet come on. “See! We do use toilets when we have to,” said my host. “The rest of the time, we go to the fields behind the toilet and praise Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.”

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