Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Are Indians by nature unhygienic?"

Sign in India advocating against open defecation
Author photo
A few weeks ago, B.S. Raghavan wrote an article that appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s largest newspapers. The title was immediately controversial: “Are Indians by nature unhygienic?” In the article, he writes of the litter and of the “general lack of cleanliness and hygiene” in both public and private spaces. He writes that, “Indians think nothing of spitting whenever they like and wherever they choose, and living in surroundings which they themselves make unliveable by their dirty habits” and that “If one wants to keep one’s sanity, one should avoid entering the kitchen of a hotel or even an ordinary household. I sometimes wonder how we are still alive eating at our hotels.” He finishes with the extra-controversial, “Are Indians then, by nature oblivious to standards of hygiene? And among Indians, are Hindus more indifferent in these respects than others?”

He’s not alone. Earlier this year Soutik Biswas, BBC Delhi correspondent, wrote an article entitled “Is India’s lack of toilets a cultural problem?”  In this article, he writes, “Is the lack of toilets and preference for open defecation a cultural issue in a society where the habit actually perpetuates social oppression, as proved by the reduced but continued existence of low caste human scavengers and sweepers?” It seems it is, he says. He cites that even in his upper-class Delhi suburb, he’ll watch his neighbors take their dogs out on the lawn to shit—as long as the shit is not in their house, it is ok if it is in a public space.

            India does have a severe sanitation issue. Over half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no toilet at home—if you look at the rural areas, that ratio goes up to 2/3. No one will contest this. Neither will anyone contest that India has hygiene, sanitation, and litter disposal management issues. However, these articles definitely make some statements that should be contested.
Trash piling up on the sides of Husein Sagar in Hyderabad

            Raghavan wrote that Indians are, by nature, unhygienic. By nature? As soon as you invoke “nature,” you threaten to biologize the issue, that somehow written in Indian DNA is a tendency to be “unhygienic.” This slippery slope is especially troubling when you consider that the writer is an Indian living in a pretty nice suburb of Delhi. The fact that he is writing in English states that he is pretty well educated. All in all, Mr. Raghavan is in a position where he undoubtedly has the financial resources to have a toilet at home, running water, and trash bins. When viewed through this perspective, his argument about “Indians” being “naturally unhygienic” becomes a sort of biologizing of  perceived negative aspects of being lower class.  

            Furthermore, what exactly is cleanliness? As a friend and colleague points out, “When one says that India is dirty etc, what is the standard one is judging it by? If it is ‘western practices’, then there is no way India could measure up, because these are themselves changing all the time.” In particular, I found it interesting the way in which different practices and senses were collapsed into one damning category: public urination, public spitting, haphazard disposal of litter, not sanitizing lunchboxes, open defecation and dish rags in kitchens. Why are all of these practices conflated? It is not disease that is the common thread in all of them—urine is relatively benign as a fluid. Then it is the aesthetic concern that seems to bind all of these practices together, and that aesthetic concern may indeed be Western.

            Biswas, on the other hand, blames Indian culture for the perpetuation of human scavengers (who clean up shit manually). While there are certainly aspects one could label “cultural” (however you want to define that term) that have caused the perpetuation of that practice (the caste system, strong fecal taboos, ideas of purity and pollution, etc.), the scavenger class was not really codified until colonial rule needed someone to clean up the city once the Yamuna had dried up, rendering the sewage system that had been built in Mughal times inoperable. Socioeconomic factors are one of the primary means by which caste is perpetuated.

            Both of these writers target Indianness or Indian culture as somehow being the reason that there are such sanitation problems. They both pay a sort of lip service to social and economic factors, but their acknowledgement of this is limited solely to the acknowledgement that the government has not done a stellar job of building toilets. Calling a lack of sanitation or hygiene a cultural problem or saying that Indians are somehow “naturally” unsanitary is problematic and troubling. By calling something “natural” or “cultural” it conceals social, political and economic factors that contribute to unequal standards across the world.

1 comment:

  1. Much of the problem with sanitation, particularly in the rural sectors stems from poor education. Once people understand the ramifications of poor hygiene they do change their habits. However, there is a cultural aspect to public sanitation and it is quite complex having to do with socioeconomic status, and caste, lack of concern for 'public spaces' and that in itself is difficult to overcome. I have been living in a village in the Indian Himalaya for the past five years. One third of the villagers do not have toilets, but would very much like to have one if only to gain some privacy. But once people have a toilet, the method of cleaning it is by throwing water down the hole. Very few use soap. Further to this, we run a school for village children. It is an issue for us to have the children come to school bathed and to get them to wash their hands with soap. I have learned that parents lock the bar of soap up in the cupboard because otherwise children will play with it and use it up, and/or it will fall down the toilet. No one seems to realize the importance of hand washing with soap after using the toilet. However, children are being educated about this in school and villagers have on occasion benefited from NGOs demonstrating the use of soap and explaining the transmission of bacteria. Nonetheless, the habits of the uneducated elder generation are slow to change. Most do not link diseases such as typhoid, or intestinal diseases with their lack of proper hand washing. In fact typhoid, when it is contracted is viewed more as a bad fever, and often considered the work of evil spirits. As for intestinal disorders, they are considered frequent ailments not worth seeking medical attention. Tape worms are common in our area. The eggs from tapeworms can travel to the brain and create cysts. This is called psychoneurosis and the effects of such a disease are similar to epileptic attacks and psychosis. Villagers treat this disease as spirit possession, and will call in a village priest to exercise the spirit. Sadly many people go untreated and end up with chronic mental illness. Half of India's population lives below the poverty line, but half of India's population remains poorly educated. Government education in India is in a abysmal state. In most rural areas teachers do not even show up to teach, and when they do they teach very poorly. As a principal of a charitable English medium school I see the effects of the children from the government system. India needs to completely scrap their education system and start over with a new, better managed and more effective system that includes all of its children in a stimulating learning environment. With good education, so many problems such as poor hygiene can be overcome.