Today, I turn on the ‘twitter’ to find the words ‘World Toilet’ trending under the global category. Subsequently, I find out that it is World Toilet Day. I click to see what people are ‘tweeting’ about it, and find that most people think that it sounds funny – which I guess it does. If I had not been to the summit on The Meaning of Water, I would have thought this was a joke too. But this, in fact, is no joke at all. Today, as a tip towards World Toilet Day, I feel compelled to share a short(-ish) write up about Q2P, a film looking at the anthropology of toilets in parts of India.
An issue that is largely taken for granted, lack of sanitation kills 1.8 million people a year. A staggering 2.6 billion live without it. This leads to all kinds of diseases and infections that are, by far, bigger killers than HIV/AIDS.
The World Toilet Organization focuses on ‘toilets’, rather than water, in order to bring that to light. A sort of taboo subject, where humans ‘go’ and their waste ends up has become a huge problem that, if eradicated, can improve millions of lives.
With the world going deeper into urbanization, the issue of sanitation is one that is carrying through into the newly built, modern developments in various parts of the world.
It can be said that most, not all, of these billions of people without sanitation are in both rural and urban parts of South Asia. Q2P is a film that explores the availability, access, importance and trickling effects of gender and class based relations to the toilet in large cities in India. 700 million people in India have no toilets and must ‘go’ outside. Focusing on Bombay and New Delhi, filmmaker Paromita Vohra interviews municipality officers and workers, city architects, public school teachers, and people on the streets. The audience is left with an illustration of the direness of the situation the lack of and the almost exclusive access to toilets and waters these cities present.
Including a humorous anecdote told by the curator of a toilet museum, Vohra shows the irony of the British evolution of the toilet and the historical context of the toilet coming from Europe to the sub-continent dating back in colonial India. Going on, the curator explains that once upon a time, it was only the rich who had toilets, and people from the ‘untouchables’ class would be hired to clean them and dispose of the waste far from the home. But more than humour, this anecdote illustrates the age-old idea of differences in toilets’ accessibility that still goes on today. Untouchables are still those hired to clean public restrooms and public places, and it is in the slums that having a bathroom is an idea only recently starting to become a scarce reality.
Drawing in on New Delhi and Bombay’s aspiration to become cities of the future, more irony is laid out by the lack of planning in India’s urban public spaces that include toilets. Homes in the slums build ‘illegal’, simple toilets by local engineers who address the point that bathrooms are a source of envy when looking at ‘organized’ modern flats that have allocated spaces for the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
Public schools are examples whereby makeshift bathrooms are created for students that remain unclean due to lack of manpower available to clean them. Lack of infrastructure is yet another problem that disallows transport of water to the areas of public schools. As a result many children keep from drinking water to avoid the need to go to the bathroom. As the girls get older, issues of cleanliness develop with the menstruation cycles.
Gender being among the issues within the planning process is yet another source of problematic shortages. In questioning municipal officers about the imbalance between men and women’s public toilets, a debate between the amount of women using the toilet, the amount of time women use in a toilet and the amount of space a woman needs (sitting down as opposed to standing up) creates a dialogue that shows better access for men to use toilets than women is simply a result of poverty and convenient planning. Showing the depth of the aspect of space in this problem, inserted along this debate is an animated ‘how-to’ clip for a tool created for women that resembles a pipe, allowing them to pee standing up; something of a funny, yet shocking, insert that illustrates how serious the issue is.
Q2P is a film that shows the complexities and relationships of urban design, natural bodily functions, basic hygiene and funding in an over-crowded and growing urban environment.
Looking through all the websites about World Toilet Organization, I am seeing quite a bit of initiative and information about the problem. But I guess among the biggest thing the Organization is trying to do is break the stigma of talking about waste and sanitation, as beyond being an issue of cleanliness versus disease, it is also a matter of human dignity. In this era of “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” debates on water access, shortage and the like, today, on World Toilet Day, I guess the point is that those who have it should not take for granted the luxury of tipping that flush. And that, once again, is no joke.