We seldom care about what is happening in India, although it concerns us all very closely. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, India is the second most populous country in the world and is on the verge of becoming the first. What is happening in India affects a large portion of humanity.
Did you know that, until 2014, over 700 million people did not have a bathroom in their homes or access to the most essential health services? In just 5 years, the Clean India project changed everything.
The first time I hear about the Clean India project I am in Varanasi. I notice a small cement closet leaning against the retaining wall that borders a ghat along the Ganges. The door says, big print, “FREE LADIES URINAL POINT. It’s a ladies’ toilet, the first public toilet I come across. So far I have not met any and, from the dozens of people I have seen urinating on the sides of the streets, it seems that all in all people do not miss it.
In fact, “the government is building public toilets all over the country, to reduce the phenomenon of open defecation,” explains Prakash, my guide. “Not only that, 1500 dollars have been given to every Indian family to build their own bathroom”.
“$1,500?” I wonder. That seems like too much. “To every Indian family?”
Prakash nods firmly and proudly. I continue to have doubts, perhaps he meant 1500 rupees, but I drop the speech.
We walk to the city’s vegetable market and Prakash points me to another public toilet. This time it is for men and it’s free: urinals are placed directly along the street, in the open air. I use it willingly, more for fun than for need. I feel a thrill of perversion doing it while dozens of people pass by me with bags full of fresh vegetables. Nobody cares about me, of course, and yet I feel more transgressive than a heavy metal rock star.
In Varanasi, people are used to soaping and brushing their teeth in the waters of the Ganges, often during sacred ablutions. If they need to urinate, they do so without too much concern. The concept of intimacy and privacy are little-rooted constructs here, and that’s what fascinates me. In India it’s impossible to feel separated.
As soon as I get back to the hotel, I connect to the wi-fi and do a search to verify what Prakash says about public funding for the construction of toilets.
I find out that in 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Clean India, a $20 billion infrastructure plan. In 2014, 56% of Indians still had no access to essential health services, a figure that rose to 70% in rural areas. We are talking about over 700 million people, more than 10 times the population of Italy. With Clean India, the Prime Minister has accomplished a titanic feat: building public toilets and private bathrooms for all, eradicating the spread of hepatitis, dysentery, cholera and diarrhea in just 5 years.
Clean India returns in my thoughts at the end of my trip to India. I’m on an Air India flight to Fiumicino. In the magazine pocket of my seat, I find an illustrative government brochure. Below the smiling photo of Narendra Modi, I read data nothing short of exhilarating. While in 2014 60% of the world’s outdoor defecation took place in India, in 2019 600 million Indians changed their habits.
100 million latrines were built, creating about 7.5 million jobs. The percentage of houses with private bathrooms increased from 38.7% to 98.5%. Hundreds of thousands of people have stopped dying from diseases related to intestinal infections or water contamination. A truly incredible result.
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