Why Bollywood is making a movie about open defecation

One in two people in India defecate in the open, but the solution isn’t as simple as just building more toilets. Now Bollywood is making a satirical comedy that hopes to change minds about sanitation.

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Since I decided to write a book about sanitation, I’ve paid a lot of attention to India, because, as I always say, it has the worst and the best of sanitation. It has the worst statistics: of the one billion people who defecate in the open (in bushes, fields, by roadsides), 600 million are in India. China has a similar population to India but only one in ten people defecate in the open there. In India, it’s one in two. 300,000 Indian children die of diarrhoea every year, much of it caused by faecal particles from all that shit lying around, getting into food and water. When NGOs appeal for money for “clean water” they mean water not contaminated with excrement.

Yet diarrhoea is not only easily preventable, but easily curable with a simple sugar, salts and water solution. But finding the clean water to put in that solution is not simple. Nor, it turns out, is reducing open defecation. You’d expect that to someone without a toilet, the gift of a latrine or toilet from the government would mean you immediately stop “going outside”. Not according to fascinating research done by India’s RICE institute, which surveyed villages in five northern states in India, and found that over 40 per cent of households with a latrine still had a family member who chose to continue to shit outside.

Humans are curious creatures, and rational behaviour is often elusive. Solving sanitation is as much about understanding the human brain (software) as installing toilets (hardware). Research done in Benin into what makes people install a latrine – the same people who see their kids getting sick and dying from diarrhoea – found that the biggest motivator was to emulate the royal family. Elsewhere, reasons given for installing latrines include getting one up on the neighbours, or impressing visiting relatives. Improving one’s health, though this is the subject of most development organisation’s messaging, comes far down the list of triggers.

This understanding isn’t new. Advertisers realised this a century ago, when they started selling soap. Telling people it made them clean and healthy? Poor sales. Telling them it made them sexy and attractive to the opposite sex? Massive sales and soap bars in every bathroom from then on.

That’s why I find what India is doing fascinating. Not only that new Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in one of his first major speeches that India should build “toilets before temples”. This is an shocking and powerful thing to say in a country where many people think any association of toilets with religion is appalling, and where many people refuse to have a toilet in or near their home because they think it is religiously unclean. Not only because Sesame Street then introduced Raya, a puppet with long dark hair who is meant to persuade the children of Asia into clean habits and, hopefully, to pressurise their parents, as only children can, into installing or using latrines. But because there is finally an understanding that installing a latrine has to be a choice, not a government imposition. A toilet must be desired, not enforced, and all these steps are an understanding that to get people to change behaviour, we have to enlist emotions too.

Even so, I never thought, in seven years of writing and speaking about sanitation, that I would be saying that there will be a Bollywood film about open defecation. But it will be so. Ek Prem Katha [A Love Story] will be a satirical comedy. There’s not much more information about it other than what producer Shital Bhatia told the Times of India: that “this story is about a man who makes a toilet for his wife as the symbol of love like the Taj Mahal”. Far-fetched? Bonkers? But I can guess the storyline because I once met a young woman who lived through something similar, and who probably inspired the film.

I was once on a travelling sanitation carnival in Uttar Pradesh when someone rushed up to me. “Rose! Rose! There’s a real ‘no loo no I do’!” I immediately jumped up and ran outside to meet her. For about a year, I’d been hearing of campaigns in India where brides were encouraged to get their prospective grooms to install a toilet as part of the wedding deal. It had been dubbed “no loo, no I do”, but I’d assumed it was mostly well-meaning propaganda. But no. Here was Priyanka and her husband Amjit. She was 23, he was a year or so older. They had had an arranged marriage, but it had become a love match. The only problem was that when Priyanka left her parents’ home for Amjit’s, she was woken at 4am by her mother-in-law and told to accompany her to a nearby field to go to the toilet. She was terrified. She was educated, but this was unlit rural India and she was scared of ghosts, and snakes, and men. There have been high-profile, hideous cases of girls going out to the fields to use the toilet who have been raped, and lynched, and I am sure there are thousands more cases that are unseen and unheard. Priyanka, who had grown up with a household latrine, was appalled. She did something that in the conservative world of rural, caste-bound India, is extremely shocking. She left. Her parents were ashamed; she was ashamed, but she stuck it out. Eventually an Indian NGO, Sulabh International, which has installed a million latrines in India, heard of her case, installed the fanciest toilet for miles around, and Priyanka and Amjit were reunited. If that’s the story of Ek Prem Katha, then I’m all in favour. Not least because Priyanka is a proper heroine. But because bringing a toilet into the world, when there are still 2.4 billion people without one, is by any reckoning a very happy ending.