The filthy image of India littered with faeces has become well-established in global opinion. Recent reports in The New York Times and The Economist have raised further concern with the connection between poor sanitation and malnutrition in India. Unfortunately, an impression is also being conveyed that ancient Hindu scriptures are responsible for the problem of open defecation in India today. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
There is no denying that India is struggling with the practice of open defecation but the reason for that does not lie in Hindu texts. In fact the solution for the crisis lies in those very texts.
What the ancient Vedas, Manusmriti, Kamasutra (yes, the Kamasutra is not merely about sex) highlight is that distance should be maintained between faeces and human habitation. Distance. In other words, no mixing, no contact between human wastes and the places where people live, eat and sleep. Also, it is specifically mentioned that faeces and urine should not be allowed to come in contact with water bodies. Even in agriculture, the use of raw human waste is expressly prohibited. It has to be borne in mind that this was centuries before the germ theory of disease was formulated in Europe. Which means, long before Europeans realised that diseases could be transmitted by pathogens from feces, Hindu texts had precluded this from happening.
In the distant past, when populations were low, people would walk long distances away from homes, away from rivers or wells, defecate into pits, cover them with soil and leave them to get absorbed into soil. They would wash their hands thoroughly with cleaning agents which were naturally available.
In the years before British colonisation, India was well-endowed with lakes, tanks and water harvesting structures. Kings financed the maintenance of the water structures while citizens contributed labour. Since people took a personal interest in their water resources, there was a collective sense of responsibility to safeguard them.
The problem arose when populations grew. There were fewer “far-off” places to defecate because where the boundaries of one village ended, another started. One might be defecating far away from one’s home but that place could be close to another’s home or water source! Knowledge about covering up the faeces properly was not transmitted correctly. Poverty made it harder for families to pay much attention to hygiene. Things were not helped when the British took over and destroyed old patterns of living.
Under British rule, the maintenance of reservoirs and rainwater harvesting structures was perceived as an unnecessary expense and discontinued. Gradually, water tanks fell into disuse. As people migrated to cities in search of education and jobs, indigenous knowledge of water management and sanitation disappeared completely.
Meanwhile, the flush toilet arrived in cities from Europe and this became the cause of even more pollution for the simple reason that its design principle was based on pollution. It envisaged the mixing of clean water with faeces and disposing it somewhere (usually rivers or lakes).
The hallowed Hindu principle of not mixing waste with clean water was discarded and this let loose a plethora of diseases. Had those principles been researched and developed scientifically into a code of best practices, today India could have been full of eco-friendly toilets that produced excellent fertiliser (perhaps bio-energy too) while its rivers, lakes and wells could have been the cleanest in the world. There would have been no need for the country to import fertilisers at nearly $700 per tonne.
Instead, flush toilets became popular everywhere and the water (sewage) carrying away the waste from homes was dumped into rivers and lakes. Once sewage is generated, there is a need for sewage treatment plants with a whole range of processes to separate the water from the wastes.
Think about it: mixing clean water with faeces just to transport it and then using a whole lot of energy, chemicals and money to separate solids from water. Does this sound intelligent? It takes just one particle of waste to contaminate hundreds of litres of water. And yet, this practice has become the cornerstone of modern sewage treatment.
The Hindus who wrote the ancient texts were not idiots. Far from it, they need to be commended for their wisdom. Any sanitation professional will admit that flush toilets are big mistakes but there is no choice. It is hard to uproot hardware that has been installed everywhere. So the thinking today is – the system might be wrong but let us make it work as efficiently as we can.
The British did not invest in sewage treatment for India other than in some areas where they lived. When India became independent, its politicians had no idea about how big the sanitation problem would become one day. It was thought that the rivers and lakes with their water in plenty would dilute the concentrations of bacteria coming from sewage. Until the 1970s, the dilution was actually quite high and major rivers such as the Ganga remained clean even with all the dirt flowing into it.
But this could not last forever as populations grew uncontrollably. The old habit of defecating in the fields continued in villages with people having no idea that the principle of not letting waste contaminate water sources was being violated to the very core.
The disinformation campaign about the nexus between Hinduism and poor hygiene needs to be busted. Verse after verse in Hindu scriptures expound on the link between cleanliness and godliness.
What the country needs to do today is to reclaim the knowledge in ancient Hindu texts which taught humans to take care of their environment, and to keep dirt and waste away from water bodies. Indians need to make up for lost time and build toilets that do not send human wastes to water.