Open defecation in the city of Taj Mahal
On 1st September, I was returning as a happy traveler from Agra to New Delhi by Intercity Express (14211) which left Agra Cantonment at 6 am. Though Intercity Express is a superfast passenger, it runs at the speed of a local train. It whimsically stops on the way between every two stations and unnecessarily halts longer at every stoppage till New Delhi Station. Hundreds of daily passengers (including daily wagers in search of work) journey from Agra to Delhi by this train in the morning. I boarded a second seating (2S) compartment and got a seat by the window. The compartment was full of passengers by the time the train left Agra.
Raja Ki Mandi was the very next station at a distance of 4 km from Agra Cantonment. The train was moving like a bull kart while leaving the platform. I was peacefully sitting by the window and looking outside, ignoring the crowd inside. The moment the train left the railway platform and hit the rough track, I was taken aback by a sight of what we often read about in newspapers and what the Government of Uttar Pradesh is often criticized for. It was the sight of open defecation by men of different age groups.
What I was shocked to see was the lack of basic sanitation, not the men defecating in open, in the area within the fringe of Agra, a historic city. Within seconds of the return journey, my pleasant memory of visit to the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri was embittered by such repulsive reality which I had not experienced before. The distance between the track that the train was running on and the row of those men sitting side by side with some gap from each other was too short to ignore their faces which were distinctly visible.
Not only the young boys but even the grownups seemed to be relaxed while defecating in open. May be, it is a regular activity that they have got used to, or it is their fearlessness for not being at the risk of losing their manly dignity. I felt bad for them, and thought why not women could defecate in open with ease like those men, why women are not as free and fearless as their male counterparts in the same society, why they live in fear of being robbed of their dignity in a free nation like India which boasts of women empowerment and socio-economic development….
When I was preoccupied with such disturbing thoughts, unaware of another greater shock awaiting me, the train habitually came to a halt in a field on the way to Raja Ki Mandi Station. All of a sudden, the picture of the Badaun gang rape and murder case, which shook the nation to the core on 27th May this year, came alive before my eyes. Some girls and women were defecating onto the ground, futilely camouflaging the lower part of the body with thin bushes and covering the face with both hands to protect their dignity from the gaze of the passengers in the train waiting for green signal.
I averted my eyes from the field. For a moment, the sight of the women forced to defecate in open due to lack of basic sanitary system in their households felt like a slap on the socio-economic development of the nation. Open defecation is a common practice in rural India, not in urban India. Agra, a tier 2 city, is part of urban India. Even the outskirts of Agra cannot be considered rural backwaters. If the women living on the outskirts of a city have to defecate in full view of other people, how deplorable the circumstance is for women living below the poverty line in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh is thinkable.
Open defecation, which is considered the root cause of the Baduan rape and murder case, was not a much-talked-about matter before the media, NGOs and social activists penetrated the interiors of Uttar Pradesh and brought to light how big the issue is. According to a recent report from UNICEF, almost 594 million people accounting nearly 50% of India’s total population defecate in the open air. Some 300 million girls and women have to defecate under the open sky and at risk of disease, infection, and sexual harassment by men due to lack of access to sanitation within four walls. 13.8 millions of children read in rural schools without basic toilet facilities in 7 Indian states: Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, initiated by the Government of India in 1999 to eradicate the practice of open defecation from the country by 2017, is the ray of hope in the dark on the other side of urban India. The Indian Government has been working towards achieving the “open defecation free” status for the country. 10.41 lakh households out of 15.51 lakhs in Uttarakhand have been provided with toilets under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan campaign, according to a report published by Daily Pioneer this 24th September. 62 lakh households in Andhra Pradesh are supposed to get toilets by 2019, according to a report published by Deccan Chronicle this 8th September.
Despite this apparently promising picture, the “open defecation free” status for the nation seems to be a far-off goal if the above-mentioned facts and figures of open defecation in India are taken into account. India Inc. has lent a hand to the Government by making monetary contributions to this mission as part of their corporate social responsibility. The Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi this 2nd October (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday), will speed up the campaign to rid India of open defecation in the near future.
Hope, I won’t have to hold my eyes back from looking outside of the window while traveling from New Delhi to Agra or from Agra to New Delhi by train the next time.