The radical consequences of public conveniences
February 1, 2014 4:40 AM   Subscribe

It drips on her head most days, says Champaben, but in the monsoon season it’s worse. In rain, worms multiply. Every day, nonetheless, she gets up and walks to her owners’ house, and there she picks up their excrement with her bare hands or a piece of tin, scrapes it into a basket, puts the basket on her head or shoulders, and carries it to the nearest waste dump.
A chapter from The Big Necessity, a book exploring the world of human waste: A Brief History of Class and Waste in India posted by Joe in Australia (18 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I am traveling in India at the moment and this article really provided a lot of context for the issues I've seen here regarding toilet provision. I had no idea Sulabh was so huge! Thanks for posting.
posted by mdonley at 5:50 AM on February 1, 2014

warning, TMI follows

I must have been 3 or 4 years old, so we are talking 1969 or 70. I still have a very distinct memory of this experience even so many years later. It was my father's father's house in Kanpur, and I am going to the toilet by my own self cos I'm a big girl now. I have to climb up 4 or 5 steps inside the toilet, where a shelf has a hole built into the concrete with two bricks, one on either side, as footrests. With great trepidation, I straddle the hole and squat. Down below, through the hole, I can see a steel bucket. It is full of shit and piss, since its morning and grandpa did have 9 kids of whom my dad's the eldest. I am so fucking frightened that any moment I am going to slip and fall in even though that hole is too small.

From the side, the shelf is open and the bucket is removed, carried away, emptied washed and replaced. I do not remember who or when or how this is done.

My next connected memory is that of grandma teaching me to wash myself at the tap, the proper way, as a girl, with my left hand, from the back, so as not to dirty myself or contaminate. I keep falling over on my butt in the slippery water, trying to do all this and can hear her instructions in my mind even now. Later, we wash my hands and then I go into the warm kitchen, sit on her lap and eat some breakfast.
posted by infini at 6:10 AM on February 1, 2014 [20 favorites]

The [More inside] made me nervous.
posted by AwkwardPause at 6:22 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sounds like the ecologically friendly practice that we should all aspire to.
posted by Renoroc at 6:47 AM on February 1, 2014

It's a great piece, but doesn't discuss how huge gender is in terms of toilet access, not just in India but around the world. (I think she gets into that elsewhere in the book, but it's been a long time since I read it.) The chapter does mention the documentary Q2P (article; preview) which focuses on that issue.

When the book came out I heard a really interesting interview with her about the difficulties of doing research on sanitation -- if you are interviewing someone who doesn't have a toilet, what do you do if you need to go, for example? (That's touched on in the original NYTimes review, which also has a pdf of the first chapter.)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:03 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

No toilet no bride mandate

Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh's profound advice to the women of Rajasthan earlier this week "Don't get married into a house where there are no toilets" is slated to become the new feminist mantra for rural Indian women. For, despite the progress made towards the realisation of women's rights in the country, the reality is that the majority still lacks life conditions conducive to their health and wellbeing.
posted by infini at 7:17 AM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

They don't call it the turd world for nothing.
posted by BinGregory at 7:42 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

That really is a shit job.
posted by colie at 7:47 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Crappy puns aside, getting rid of human waste has been a problem forever.

I still remember hearing my younger cousin yell at the top of her lungs when visiting grandpa's cabin in Northern Minnesota. "You expect me to sit on a board and shit in a hole?"
posted by Sphinx at 8:30 AM on February 1, 2014

Great read! Waste management of all sorts is complicated, made even more so when we bring in social interactions. I love the wraparound services of this program trying to address both short term (toilets) and long term (schools) solutions to the problem of improving social standing.

And boy, does it make me reflect on the ridiculous amount of water I use everyday just to get rid of my own excrement.
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 8:59 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Crappy puns aside, getting rid of human waste has been a problem forever.
My understanding is that there are many uses for "humanure".
I've never been interested in the topic to look into it, but Grand Designs tells me there are self-composting toilets one can buy.

I don't doubt there are issues that make human waste not the ideal mix in a Polyfarm ideal, but it can be done, so far as I know, assuming to have a manageable population of humans.
posted by Mezentian at 9:05 AM on February 1, 2014

The first chapter of her book (linked in the Times review) talks a bit about the pluses and minuses of centralized sewer systems vs on-site sanitation. In a lot of ways it comes down to the question of if your neighbor can't maintain his car or watch his cholesterol, do you really trust him to operate a composting toilet in a way that protects public health?, and multiplying that question by millions of people in a metro area. The big public health benefits in the industrialized world have come from centralization and professionalization of things like sewerage and potable water treatment. But there are environmental downsides to that, and increasing pressure on water supplies is going to intensify that trade off.

Composting and reuse of sewage sludge is definitely a done thing, but then you get into the need to control and test for things like industrial waste being dumped into sewage systems as well as all the questions about medications, etc. Again, we will be seeing a lot more of this on a large scale going forward.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:23 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it, and it has convinced me never to visit Daressalem. Ever.

Those of you interested in the thrilling world of humanure composting can check out The Humanure Handbook for free. tl;dr if you have a big enough pile of biomass, it composts hot enough to kill off pathogens. Emphasis on "big enough".
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:52 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

How big is big enough?
posted by Mezentian at 10:02 AM on February 1, 2014

That was a really interesting read. I used to get scared as a kid when I used my grandparents' outhouse, but at least that flushed. It's saddening that society will find a way to keep segments down, "my life may be bad but at least I'm not a shit collector". It's good to see things are improving.
posted by arcticseal at 11:32 AM on February 1, 2014

One of the notes to myself, is to do something to raise awareness about caste prejudice which is just racism masquerading as culture and society and religion. Gandhi used to clean his own toilets for just this reason.
posted by infini at 11:53 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Buy the book! Buy it, buy it, buy it! It is both a great read on a far-reaching and important topic, and also just really good writing. I call it craftsmen writing, where you don't realise the sheer skill involved in creating something that looks plain and unadorned until you read something similar done with less skill. She is an extremely good writer.

I have bought three copies and given them away. I plan on buying more. And thanks to this post, I have found she has a new book and have just ordered it. Thank you!
posted by viggorlijah at 5:04 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bodily Fluids in a Year – Ever wonder how much you poop in a year?

U.S. and World Population Clock.
posted by cenoxo at 7:17 PM on February 1, 2014

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