The porcelain throne, loo, can, john, latrine, labatory, washroom, and commode. If a rose by any other name would be just as sweet, then a toilet is just as practical. India, a country of 1.2 billion people, is plagued by lack of access to the practical commodity of toilets. Nearly half of the population lives without proper access to toilets. Many of the toilets that are available are shared by hundreds even thousands of people. Rivers of sewage often spew from large communities, serving as a stark reminder to the immense lack of resource and infrastructure.
Toilets, something that I have taken for granted my entire life, often mean the difference between life and death. The issue of unavailability of toilets becomes more and more evident as Niswarth travels to areas such as Dharavi, the world’s most densely populated slum. After emerging from a narrow alley in which I could easily touch four houses with each of my limbs (in fact it would be hard not to at some points), we found ourselves in a trash pit. Half of the three foot wide alley was dedicated to a stagnant sewage stream. The smell of the stream was so overwhelming that I emerged from the alley and found the dank air of the mountainous trash heap to be relatively refreshing. Two young boys, both wearing small Karakul hats, squatted atop the trash pile with toilet paper in hand.
The issue of poor sewage infrastructure can often be easy to ignore. When going from the Mumbai Cricket Club to the American School of Bombay to a fancy Chinese fusion restaurant, the issue is all too easy to ignore. Clean, convenient toilets are there to greet you just as they would at Andover or even back home in Ohio. I first understood the extent of the problem when reading "Dharavi: Developing Asia's Largest Slum." The case study explains, "Only 17% of residents in Mumbai's slums have access to household toilets." The reality for the other 83% is often hour-long lines or a resort to public defecation.
So what does all this mean to me? Writing about toilets is hard. I have grown up in a culture that avoids discussion on sanitation issues. I have a toilet at home that has been unused for the past week and all the while children here have to risk infection in wrenched conditions.
The inequality of toilet access seems to be a simple issue but with no evident solution. More people in India have cell phones than they do toilets. To put infrastructure in place, especially in poor communities such as Dharavi, would be a momentous undertaking. We often say that certain predicaments are "million dollar questions" but I think in the case of India's waste infrastructure issue, the dilemma is a "million life question."