Sunday, March 3, 2013

Who wants loos in every home?

Not my chauffeur, for example.

Vir Singh comes from a village in Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, and has been working with my family for over two decades now. Now in his mid-40s, he lives in a room attached to our house, a 'servant's quarter' in Delhi parlance, but his wife and 3 children live in the village, in a pucca house he has built on the family homestead. 3 brothers have individual homes on the plot of land, which I estimate is some 700-800 sq. yards in area. By his description, the courtyard around which the houses are arrayed is about 200 sq. yds. His own house has 2 large rooms, and a massive verandah that runs the length of the house - 90 feet long, and 12 feet deep. He put in a 'lintel' roof in 2001, and remembers every detail of its laying - how many tons of steel, how many bags of cement, how much he paid the contractor, and the number of liters of country liquor he served to the labourers who mixed and poured the cement. The exact dimensions of the concrete slab - 1130 sq ft.

Just to put that in perspective, that's almost the same area as a 3 bed-room flat in Delhi's Vasant Kunj, and a lot larger than the average Rs. 3 crore flat in Mumbai. But this substantial home has neither loo nor bathroom.

"How come?", I asked him. "Oh, I keep thinking I will build it", he said, "but there've been too many weddings this last year." Of nephews and nieces, of cousins and their children. He counts off 10 weddings to which he has contributed money in the last year or so. "They'll give me back the money when I get my elder daughter married next year." Clearly, that loo is not going to get built in a hurry. It's just too low on his list of priorities. The house came first, the buffaloes next, then cycles for the kids.

Over the next 10 years, his 2 daughters will need to be married, and he has a list of requirements that is startling in its detail, exactitude and costing - Rs. 32,000 for the beds, Rs. 31,000 for 1 'tola' of gold jewellery, Rs. 13,000 worth of winter bedding, 51 guests for dinner.....Rs. 3 lakhs in all. Then his 13-year old son will need to go to college. "He's very good at studies."

Social activists, who want to set the agenda for public spending on private lives, bemoan the fact that India has more mobile phones that loos. If they - or the government - had its way, India would have not had mobile phones; when they were launched, the government felt that mobile phones would cater to the need of the affluent. It was entrepreneurs who sensed how basic the need to talk is, and catered to it.

My conversation with Vir Singh underlined the fact that he couldn't care a s*** about a private loo.

To the extent this is reflective of others without a privy, those loos will not be built. And if public money is used to build them, they will be used to store fodder, or firewood.

1 comment:

  1. Loos aren't priority. Several reasons:
    i) they cost too much
    ii) who's gonna clean them (given our national aversion to cleaning the loo)
    iii) where's the damn water?
    iv) using the open in a low-density rural area in soil isn't the health hazard it is in cities on cemented open sewers etc.

    However, govt is spending tones on providing water (seperate Dept created a couple of years ago). So,
    a) if you're building pipes to bring water to the homes, might as well look at sewerage and reclaiming the water
    b) water supply for drinking is an issue plus bringing the water (the large number who don't have pump sets for ground water). Central treatment (even for a village can help).
    c) if water is available plus sewage pipe, maybe the loo can become worth it. Certainly helps for women ducking around in the dark.
    d) bringing clean water home is useful for living comfort.

    Agree that the loo isn't critical. But water supply at home can be handy and reduce workload. The water / electricity connection (in govt parlance) also reiterates property rights of the resident (utility bills).