Spoiler blames the spoilt

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One of the images used in the article published by The New York Times

The New York Times has published an article, which reports that malnutrition in India is not so much caused by the lack of nutrition as due to the lack of sanitation. This is indeed a damning discovery.

The article, which is otherwise full of facts, has unfortunately made a reference to Hindu texts and indicted them for the problem of open defecation in India today. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

India today is struggling with the practice of open defecation and malnutrition, but the reason for that does not lie in Hindu texts. In fact, the solution does. In Mattur (also spelt Mathur) in Karnataka, the village where every inhabitant famously converses in Sanskrit, one may find this inscription on the walls of all houses: “मार्गे स्वच्छता विराजते। ग्रामे सुजना: विराजते। (If your roads are clean, the village stays clean).”

A section of the article in The New York Times

What the ancient Hindu texts such as the Vedas, Manusmriti, Kamasutra (yes Kamasutra is not all about sex) and many others highlight is that distance should be maintained between faeces and human habitation. Distance. In other words, no mixing, no contact between human wastes and the places where people live, eat and sleep. Also, it is specifically mentioned that faeces and urine should not be allowed to come in contact with water bodies. Even for agriculture, the use of raw human waste was prohibited. Mind you, this was centuries before the germ theory of disease was formulated in Europe. This means, long before Europeans realised that diseases could be transmitted by pathogens from faeces, the Hindu texts precluded this from happening.

In those days, when populations were low, people would walk long distances away from homes, away from rivers or wells, defecate into pits, cover them with soil and leave them to get absorbed into the soil. They would wash their hands thoroughly with natural cleansing agents, which varied from place to place.

In the pre-British years, India was well-endowed with lakes, tanks and water harvesting structures. Kings financed the maintenance of water bodies while citizens contributed labour. Since people took a personal interest in their water resources, there was a collective sense of responsibility to safeguard them. States such as Mysore had as many as 40,000 lakes.

The problem arose when populations grew. There were fewer ‘far-off’ places to defecate because where the boundaries of one village ended, another started. One might be defecating far away from one’s home but that place could be close to another’s home! Knowledge about covering up the faeces properly was not transmitted correctly. made it harder for families to pay much attention to hygiene. Things were not helped when the British took over and destroyed old patterns of living.

Under British governance, the maintenance of reservoirs and rainwater harvesting structures was perceived as an unnecessary expense and discontinued. Gradually, the water tanks fell into disuse. As people migrated to cities in search of education and jobs, indigenous knowledge of #water management and sanitation disappeared completely.

Meanwhile, the flush toilet arrived in cities from and this became the cause of even more pollution for the simple reason that its principle was based on pollution. It envisaged the mixing of clean water with faeces and disposing it of somewhere (usually in rivers or lakes).

The hallowed Hindu principle of not mixing waste with clean water was discarded and this let loose a plethora of diseases. Had the principle been researched and developed scientifically into a code of practices, today India could have been full of eco-friendly toilets that produced excellent fertilisers (and bio-energy) while our rivers, lakes and wells would have been the cleanest in the world. There would have been no need to import fertilisers at nearly $700 per tonne.

Instead, flush toilets became popular everywhere and the water (sewage) carrying away the wastes from homes was dumped into rivers and lakes. Once sewage is generated, we need sewage treatment plants with a whole range of processes to separate the water from the wastes. Just think about it: mixing clean water with faeces just to transport them and then using a whole lot of energy, chemicals and money to separate solids from water! That sounds intelligent? It takes just one particle of waste to contaminate hundreds of litres of water. The Hindus who wrote the ancient texts were not idiots. Far from it. They need to be commended not mocked. Any sanitation professional will admit that flush toilets are big mistakes but there’s no choice, it is hard to change hardware that has been installed everywhere. So the thinking today is — the system might be wrong but let us make it work as efficiently as we can.

The British did not invest in sewage treatment for the country. When India became independent, its politicians turned out to be of the useless variety who had no idea about how big the sanitation problem would become one day. They thought the rivers and lakes with their water in plenty would dilute the concentrations of bacteria coming from sewage. In the early days, the dilution was actually quite good and the remained clean for decades even with all the dirt flowing into it. But this could not last forever as populations grew uncontrollably. The old habit of defecating in the fields continued in villages with people having no idea that the principle of not letting waste contaminate water sources was being violated to the very core.

Today India is stuck between the devil and deep blue sea. On the one hand, there is open defecation being practiced by half the population which is playing havoc with hygiene. On the other hand is the untreated sewage being generated from thousands of flush toilets and kitchens, not to forget untreated industrial wastewater and agricultural run-off (carrying used fertilisers and pesticides), all pouring into rivers and lakes.

What the country needs to do today is to reclaim the knowledge in the ancient Hindu texts that taught Indians to take care of their environment, to keep dirt and waste away from water bodies. We need to make up for the lost time and build toilets that do not send human wastes to water bodies.

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The writer specialises in environmental (water) issues, current affairs and Indian history. She is a member of Indian History Awareness and Research; she has recently authored 'The Educational Heritage of Ancient India – How An Ecosystem of Learning Was Laid to Waste'