The perfect toilet

Professor Assa Doron

Projects of perfection are rarely realised. There are simply too many stubborn forces dragging them down from such lofty ideals. Yet when it comes to basic public goods, such as clean water and toilets, ‘perfection’ seems a far more mundane goal. For such sanitary perfection to be possible anywhere, it should be in a state’s ability to provide a sustainable and safe place to relieve oneself. But in densely populated twenty-first century India, this remains an elusive reality for millions of citizens who still defecate outdoors. Is this simply because the state is yet to come up with the ‘perfect toilet’: a technology that could accommodate the needs and wants of rich and poor, young and old?

When we imagine the perfect toilet, the Japanese seem to have set the gold-standard. Far from a zen-inspired loo, the Japanese toilet is super-modern – a device kitted with all the latest tech, aimed at transforming the age-old practice of … well, ‘shitting’ into a pleasant (some say near-spiritual) sensory experience. This uber-loo has many enviable features: a heated seat, an automated air deodoriser and useful noise maker to conceal plops. It includes cleaning mechanisms for the user and the lavatory. In short, the Japanese upgrade of the humble commode into an automated throne, has brought hygiene, comfort and privacy to a new level.

Yet like all models of perfection, what lies behind such seemingly ‘neutral’ objects of desire is a range of cultural meanings, political histories and economic imperatives. Indeed the Japanese were not always so well-versed in Western toilet etiquette. A poster in circulation from the 1920s featured a Japanese woman squatting awkwardly on a flush toilet. Curiously, the woman was depicted as facing the ‘wrong way’, looking puzzled by the long-chain dropping from the tank. The tagline above the image said: “Let’s get used to civilized facilities”. The poster formed part of a series that propagated innovative technology, as well as getting rid of practices deemed old-fashioned and unhygienic, such as the removal of night soil: human faeces collected at night from buckets, cesspools, and household loos, and sometimes used as manure.

In her wonderfully illustrated book, Bathroom, Barbara Penner points out the ‘Americanisation’ of the Japanese toilet since the second world war. The evolution of the Japanese bathroom, she maintains, is in part due to the presence of American troops in the country and their sanitary expectations, and in part due to multinational companies like McDonald's, which helped set the standards for public hygiene all across East Asia in the decades after World War II.

Global history also reminds us that the excremental order was not always so neatly encased in the modern toilet. Public sanitation can be traced far back to the great Indus Civilisation of Mohanjo Daro (2500 BC), where archaeological findings revealed a highly developed system of human waste removal. The ancients Romans followed with their own Cloaca Maxima, a vast sewerage system that carried water and human waste into the River Tiber. These systems were designed for communities and, in the Roman period, included collective luxury bathing and using a sponge-pot (people used shared sponges on sticks used to wipe themselves). ‘The wrong end of the stick’ is a phrase some attribute to that unnerving soggy end.

Hygiene was viewed as distinguishing colonial rulers from their ‘barbaric’ subjects.

It would take nearly 1,000 years for the Europeans to introduce the early iterations of the privy chamber, which John Harrington is said to have invented with its flushing mechanism in 1596. Few were privileged enough to enjoy the comforts of the ‘Throne’: a term that was coined later to highlight one’s power and privilege, such as king or knight, for whom a purpose-built privy room was erected.

Privilege, power and poo seemed to have always been connected. Our modern hygienic repertoire had to be carefully crafted, claimed German sociologist Norbert Elias in his masterful work, The Civilising Process. Elias’ probing of medieval society and the aristocracy revealed the increasing social controls and restrictions placed on bodily functions, and their relegation to the ‘backstage’ of social life. It was, however, bourgeoise society that fully embraced the mantel of hygiene in a period where cleanliness and covering-up the natural bodily functions gained popularity.

By the nineteenth century, fear of disease and epidemics helped democratise public hygiene, pulling it into the realm of state power. The rise of germ theory lead to a slew of policies and public works designed to protect the ‘body politic’. Public sanitation became a key instrument for spreading the gospel of hygiene, underpinning the practice of bio-power: a term coined by French philosopher, Michel Foucault, to describe the calculated management of populations, enacted through institutions like the modern clinic and public health more generally. Arguably, the toilet is the material expression of this state-sponsored project. What originated as a humble pot and developed into a washbasin turned into the private latrine – a technology that harboured a social vision, and related behaviours and techniques befitting the ‘civilised’ order, with its modern distinctions of public and private life.

There was also a political edge to late Victorian ideals of the body and its hygienic apparatus. Hygiene was viewed as distinguishing colonial rulers from their ‘barbaric’ subjects. That Indians were routinely bathing and relieving themselves in public spaces was viewed as confirming the superiority of Western civilisation. Racial hygiene became yet another marker of the ‘stalled’ evolutionary development of the ‘natives’, rendering them ill-equipped to govern their own bodies, let alone a polity. India – the jewel in the crown – had to be polished, and its defecatory norms were taken as an affront to civilised social order and projects of urban sanitation.

Fast forward 70 years and toilets are still absent in much of the Indian landscape. In 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), India had more than 600 million people who routinely ‘go outside’ to relieve themselves, a practice known as ‘open defecation’. There are many reasons why the ‘toilet’ as we know it in the West is yet to be fully embraced in India. Regional diversity, poverty, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to water and sanitation facilities, are all factors said to have prevented the adoption of the latrine into the Indian household.

For a newly independent India, building infrastructure projects – dams and steel plants – was far more urgent than laying sewer lines throughout the land.

For a newly independent India, building infrastructure projects – dams and steel plants – was far more urgent than laying sewer lines throughout the land. After all, India was still a predominantly rural society and open defecation was part of traditional social life. For generations Indian villages and towns had a system of ‘dry latrines’, cleaned by Dalits – formerly known as untouchables – charged with removing the faeces with their bare hands using a metal or wooden scraper, transferring the excrement to a basket, and eventually dumping it into a cesspit, drain or convenient body of water. This was the oppressive human infrastructure popularly known as ‘manual scavenging’.

‘Untouchability’ was banned after independence and manual scavenging was made illegal in 1993. Yet even today, dry latrines remain operative in thousands of homes, tended to by manual scavengers across India. These toilets are a daily reminder that the ‘perfect’ sanitary solution was anchored in cultural mores and social systems stretching well into the present. In the twenty-first century, devising the perfect toilet is not simply a matter of coming up with the right technical solution. Rather it requires imagination, political will and a social vision that can redress enduring inequalities and prejudices to do with the caste system and ideas about ritual pollution attached to human excreta.

One of the early visionaries seeking to devise a ‘perfect’ toilet in India was an upper-caste Brahmin, Bindeshwar Pathak, who hailed from one of India’s less developed states of Bihar. Pathak drew his inspiration from Gandhi’s idea that sanitation was integral to social justice, and established a sanitation-focused non-government organisation called Sulabh International in 1970. Pathak’s solution to India’s sanitation problem was the twin-pit pour flush toilet: a technology that was affordable, and did not depend on sewage lines or manual scavenging. The twin-pit toilet was indeed visionary; some called it the ‘jugaad toilet’, denoting its frugal but innovative qualities. Part of Sulabh’s mission was to spread the toilet gospel far and wide. A Sulabh toilet museum in the capital showcases the organisation’s technological ingenuity and social mission. During a tour at the museum, the guide explained:

“The method is twin-pit toilets, and we use one pit at a time and when one is full, we divert it to the other. Within a year the other pit will dry and all pathogens and bacterias will be gone, as advised by WHO. But even so, we say that in remote rural areas there is no microscope, so it is better to wait up to two years, and this can then be taken out and used as compost.”

The cycle of diverting pits means they can be used continuously. The advantage, the guide added, is “that it is an onsite facility, and does not require sewage line connection”. The superstructure of the toilet varies according to one’s needs and economic capabilities, and the building costs can range between 5,000 to 30,000 rupees (A$100–590). To date, Sulabh claims to have installed 1.5 million latrines across India in nearly five decades of operation. It is now the largest non-government organisation in India, with overseas branches in Africa.

Sulabh International found legitimacy not simply with reference to the technology – a perfect toilet – but through a social vision drawing on the language of universal rights and social justice: to liberate manual scavengers from their degrading occupation. For a technology like toilets to be adopted by a wide range of people, it needed to be more than just a ‘technical fix’, it had to be accompanied by shifts in social behaviours and cultural meanings.

Ancient public toilet, Dougga, Roman Ruins. Tunisia.

The twin-pit toilet appears to be a great solution that eliminates the need for Dalit labour and sewer systems. But the problem remains: when those pits have to be taken out, who does it? Dalits continue to be conscripted into projects that involve dealing with other people’s waste. As a result, they continue to be stigmatised through work-based discrimination. Modernity, economic reforms and urbanisation have significantly altered the nature of Indian social life. India’s middle classes retreat to gated communities that run their own diesel generators, truck in water and pump sewage off the premises. They rely on themselves, not the state. Nevertheless, even sparkling latrines in middle-class homes and public buildings need to be emptied, with ‘septic tanks’ often nothing more than large cesspits. Again, the Dalits are called on to deal with the human excreta flowing from urban toilets. They make up an army of contract labourers, driven to continue their ‘traditional’ occupations, of maintaining inadequate public sanitation, especially sewerage systems and septic tanks. They are sent into underworlds of sewage that should only be safely approached by well-trained workers in the elaborate gear of deep-sea divers. Many have died as a result of inhaling toxic fumes and accidents.

The current Indian government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a Clean India campaign (Swachh Bharat), including a vast toilet-building program to eliminate open defecation. The campaign’s rural website shows 85 million rural toilets built in the past four years, with the number clocking up every minute. In urban areas, the ticker shows construction of close to five million household toilets and 400,000 community toilets. Yet, such lofty goals that focus only on technological fixes and diffusion are doomed to fail. The perfect toilet is not just the one that takes away bodily fluids, but also the one that challenges inequitable social systems and cultural stigmas around human waste.


Assa Doron is Professor of anthropology and South Asian Studies in the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Much of his anthropological fieldwork was carried in Varanasi, India, where he focused on the ritual economy of the river and questions of caste and identity politics. The study was published in the book, Life on the Ganga (Cambridge, 2013). His collaboration with Robin Jeffrey led to two co‑authored books, the first on the mobile phone revolution in India and its impact on social life, The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life (Harvard, 2013), and Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (Harvard, 2018). 

Header Image: Community latrine in India.

 

Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team