I crossed the Indian border from Pakistan for the first time on December 1, 1969. It changed my life. I've been back to India at least a half dozen times since then and from time to time I blog about my experiences there both here at the travel blog and at my political blog, DownWithTyranny. More about restaurants and the tombs of beheaded gay Sufi saints on the travel blog and more social commentary at DWT, like this bit from a quick visit to Delhi in 2007.
I guess they're so small because they don't eat any protein-- or much of anything-- and neither did their parents, grandparents or ancestors. I'm not in India anymore; I'm in Thailand. You don't see much of that kind of grinding, horrific poverty in Bangkok. Nor do you see the levels of garish displays of conspicuous consumption like you see in Delhi. You see some and you do see some people in appalling poverty. But it isn't anything like the extremes you see in India. In Delhi wherever I went on the streets there were always clusters of small, very dark, very skinny people. They're everywhere, but no one seems to notice. There are hundreds of millions of them-- more of them in India than the entire population of the United States! And no one seems to notice them. They don't own anything but the rags on their backs and I've never been able to figure out how they exist. The begging can't possibly support them, even if every tourist and every trendy call center-walla gives (far from the case; no one notices them).
I didn't cry the whole time I was in India. It was simply too horrible to fathom. Families laying in the filth and dust with stray dogs night after night, wrapped in their rags, bundled around a little fire burning garbage. Delhi's cold. I've being seeing it since I started coming to India in 1969. It's just unfathomable. Has anyone cared about these millions and millions of people since a right-wing religious fanatic assassinated their champion, Mahatma Gandhi 60 years ago?
So what brought me to hunt that up and resuscitate today? It was a report a noticed a few days ago from a BBC correspondent in Mumbai... about women's toilet facilities in India-- or lack thereof. Don't worry-- not for tourists; that all set these days (although when I rented a lovely beachfront home in Goa in 1969, the sewage system was pigs... I'll spare you the details). This is just for the little people. And it's not just about the homeless; half of the homes in India don't have toilets! That's 1.2 billion people.
Activists in Mumbai have launched a campaign to demand better public toilet facilities for women.
Currently, women have to pay to use public toilets while men can use the services for free.
The campaign, dubbed the "Right to Pee" campaign, is led by 35 non-government organisations (NGOs), and urges women in Mumbai's civic authority to ensure that the service is free for women.
Women currently make up 50% of Mumbai's civic authority.
Rahul Gaekward, who heads one of the 35 NGOs in the campaign, has outlined three basic requirements for women.
"They should be allowed to pee for free, the public toilets should provide vending machines with sanitary towels, like men have for condoms, and they should have a changing room in the toilets," he said.
There is an acute shortage of both public and private toilets in India, and public defecation is common across the country.
And it's worse in the countryside than in the cities. Two-thirds of the homes in the villages have no toilets.
Is the lack of toilets and preference for open defecation a cultural issue in a society where the habit actually perpetuates social oppression, as proved by the reduced but continued existence of low caste human scavengers and sweepers?
It would seem so.
Mahatma Gandhi, India's greatest leader, had, in the words of a biographer, a "Tolstoyian preoccupation with sanitation and cleaning of toilets." Once he inspected toilets in the city of Rajkot in Gujarat. He reported that they were "dark and stinking and reeking with filth and worms" in the homes of the wealthy and in a Hindu temple. The homes of the untouchables simply had no toilets. "Latrines are for you big people," an untouchable told Gandhi.
Many years later when Gandhi began encouraging his disciples to work as sanitation officers and scavengers in villages, his diligent secretary and diarist Madhav Desai noted the attitudes of villagers. "They don't have any feeling at all," he wrote. "It will not be surprising if within a few days they start believing that we are their scavengers."
India's enduring shame is clearly rooted in cultural attitudes. More than half a century after Independence, many Indians continue to relieve themselves in the open and litter unhesitatingly, but keep their homes spotlessly clean. Yes, the state has failed to extend sanitation facilities, but people must also take the blame.
In the upstart suburb of Gurgaon, where I live, my educated, upwardly mobile, rich neighbours sent their pet dogs outside with their servants to defecate and refuse to clean up the mess. As long as their condominium is clean, it is all right. These are the same people who believe that the government is at the root of all evil.
Do you think the food preparers-- even in the fanciest Mumbai and Delhi restaurants-- have adequate and hygienic facilities in their homes?