In a Good Place What’s the solution to India’s sanitation crisis? It’s not just more toilets. Story by Ann Schraufnagel, Photography by Emily H. Johnson| Source: Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine, Spring 2016 |
“Don’t you know what a toilet is?”
The rusty auto-rickshaw flew over a pothole on the broken concrete road. Though I was hunched over in the backseat of the tiny, three-wheeled vehicle, my head slammed the ceiling. Eyes tearing, the sights around me blurred: Women in bold-colored saris working in the surrounding fields looked like smudges of blue and purple in an endless sea of bright, brilliant green. Dazed, I wondered whether I’d heard the translation correctly.
“I mean, don’t you know what a toilet is used for?” Laleshwor Kumar shouted at me over the roaring engine of the rickshaw. He looked taken aback.
With a fellowship from the Bloomberg School and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I’d come to Bihar, India, in June 2015 to report on open defecation. Bihar is a hotbed for this practice: In rural Supaul, the district where I stayed, only 30 percent of homes have toilets. Despite years of effort to curb it, the practice of relieving oneself outside has persisted in India. Recent studies showed that many Indians have a stated preference for open defecation.
Yet here I was with Laleshwor, a janitor at a local bank, on a quest to build a toilet. On this unbearably hot, sticky summer day, we rode into town from his rural home and I had asked why. What set him apart, I wondered, and made him want a toilet in his home when, according to the research I’d conducted from an air-conditioned American cubicle, so many Indians
For the next four weeks, I set out to answer the vexing public health question central to India’s current sanitation crisis: Why would an individual choose to not use a toilet even when one is available?
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