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No, said some. Yes, said others. And before the nation could flush out the irritant, toilets at the CWG Village had raised a global stink.
Commonwealth Games Federation chief Michael Fennell likes his toilet clean. The Organising Committee spokesperson Lalit Bhanot doesn't mind a dirty one. Fennel is British and white. Bhanot is Indian and brown. Their toilets reflect their skin colours. The Delhi Games is probably one of the most racist ever: it is two civilisations looking at shit. Their visions differ drastically.
Hygiene, Bhanot said, "is a matter of perception in cleanliness. " And the context was Fennell finding the Delhi Games Village apartments and toilets unusable for international athletes.
No one specifically asked the participating black countries like the Caribbean states the complexion of their toilet preference. The chances are that they would have smiled at Bhanot in understanding. The poor across the world know well what it takes to keep a toilet bowl white and clean, provided of course that they have one.
More than half the Indian population doesn't. According to a recent UN survey, roughly 366 million people had access to improved sanitation. That's less than our mobile penetration: more than 545 million cell phones are now connected to service India's emerging economy. Clearly, we prefer telephones to toilets, perhaps because we are a garrulous people.
Bhanot is right. As a race, Indians don't mind co-existing with crap. Our tolerance level for rubbish is high compared to the West. As a child in Trivandrum, this writer used to pick his way to school and back through a stretch of road which was used as an open toilet by hundreds of Dravidians, who might still be at it with slightly altered physiognomies, and with the singular difference that they might be now talking into a cell. These are, after all, days of multitasking.
It's no different in India's north or west. In Delhi city, you just need to step out into an area like Okhla to find hourly testimonies to Bhanot's law. In Mumbai, where this writer used to work for long, thousands line the roads and railway tracks morning and evening to relieve themselves, chin up and eyes defiant.
Indeed, when was the last time an Indian protested against the lack of toilets in a country that can find Rs 27, 000 crores - so, material resources are not the problem - for collapsible stadiums and marmoreal sidewalks? Clearly, we no longer care. We have been so sanitised that we are no longer troubled by how close we are to garbage and waste in public spaces.
Or consider the 9, 000 passenger trains of the Indian Railways - lead partner of the Delhi Games - carrying over 2 million travellers a day. What are these but holes on wheels into which people crap at over 100 km per hour across the length and breadth of the country, manically distributing the suspect largesse?
Hygiene is not always a question of scatology. It could be about dead bodies as well. The Vedic Indian considers the Ganges holy, and allows half burnt corpses to drift in the river, in transit to heaven. Our idea of the sublime itself is ridiculous.
Or consider the ubiquitous office tea-boy who brings you and your friends chai, three of his snot-laced fingers dipping deep into the glasses. Or the open sewers. Or the dhobi sneezing into the laundered linen and bringing it back, all neatly folded. The list is endless.
Bhanot is right about the cultural relativity of cleanliness. The fact is that the whites are a cleaner race, and their idea of sanitation as a system institutionally superior.
We may resort to the argument that it is the pressure of urbanisation that is at the heart of the matter. But nothing quite explains why we have more mobiles than toilets. Clearly, it's not so much a question of resources as wrong prioritisation both at the institutional and individual levels.
The Delhi Games is a lesson in basics. The dirty rooms of the Games village, the stained beds, and the filthy toilets could be partly explained by rogue dogs;or by vandal construction workers.
The first is a security breach. The other raises the question: why were the workers not given adequate toilets or shower rooms on site?
The Games authorities, like the middle class that now finds itself aggrieved at the national shame, never spared a moment to think: where do workers crap? Why, they will manage! There's always the Yamuna! And there were at one point more than 400, 000 labourers on CWG sites. Neither the Organisation Committee nor Sheila Dikshit gave a shit to the workers' dignity. And look what they got in return : the brown man's toilet.
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