"Lack of toilets is a huge issue for women and girls"
There is a shortage of toilets, especially clean ones, in most parts of the country, say people who cannot understand the brouhaha over a minister's remark that toilets are more important than temples in the country.
"A toilet, and a clean one at that, is terribly important, especially when you are on the move and need to go to one urgently," said Sita Ram, an office assistant.
A public toilet in Madurai district with a liberal spraying of human faeces all over. Photo by Senthil Kumaran
"Whenever I travel to my village in Rajasthan I use the toilet before boarding the bus, and then when I get home. The few ones along the roadside are terribly dirty," says Sita Ram.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh drew flak from some quarters of the opposition, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal, for his remark that toilets are more important than temples in India.
"The free public toilets in the city are unusable, they are terribly filthy. Even the paid toilets are dirty. You pay Rs.5 and have to tip-toe around muck in order to use the facility," says Swati Agarwal, a receptionist.
According to Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak, the minister's remark was in "no way hurting religious sentiments".
"India has small and big temples in large numbers, but you will not find any public conveniences around these temples. The minister did not say anything to hurt anyone," said Pathak.
"In Sulabh, sanitation is our religion," said Pathak, whose NGO has been striving to promote sanitation across the country. "India lacks the culture of sanitation. Even if you go to a decent restaurant for a good meal, you will find the toilets are invariably dirty," he added.
Pathak said Ramesh was "trying to focus on the importance of toilets.”
Annie Raja, general secretary All India National Federation of Indian Women, said "vested interests were playing up" the minister's remark.
"He was highlighting the issue of lack of toilets. So many women and young girls are subject to sexual violence when they go to the fields and open spaces due to the lack of toilets," said Raja.
"Lack of toilets is a huge issue for women and girls," she added. (Read about Priyanka Bharti, who ran away from her in-laws' house because there was no toilet and returned only after they built a toilet. - Ed)
She said that one can see many small and big places of worship on the road, but not enough toilets in slums. "The issue should be addressed, instead of making it such a controversy," she said.
Prem Jakhar, an office assistant, said the "muck-filled" toilets she encounters every time she has to take a bus trip to different places, makes her feel like retching.
"The toilets are so dirty, you can't even step into them, leave alone use them," Jakhar said.
The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, in a report in July, said that in India it is easier to find cellphone coverage in the most backward villages than a proper toilet.
By June 2011, 98.1 percent of the country's inhabited villages were connected by wireless mobile networks. However, 626 million people in the country - the highest number in the world - don't have a closed toilet and consequently practice open defecation.
"Yes, we definitely lack toilets in our country," said Jakhar. - IANS