A pecking order falls #sundayreading

Author(s): Garga Chatterjee, DOWN TO EARTH
Date: Dec 15, 2012

The veil of civilisation and Hurricane Sandy

Garga ChatterjeeGarga Chatterjee

We live in a world filled with theories of human nature, or more correctly, theories of human nature that explain differences between people. Such theories have a wide ranging currency and explain differences between people in things as varied as poverty, labour efficiency, honesty, graciousness, violence (or lack thereof), scientific progress, cleanliness of streets, alcoholism, sexual prowess and what not. The power of these theories are in that they set the agenda, around which we create our perceptions of ourselves and others, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future, our aspirations and desires.

This is why it is important we take such “human nature” theories seriously and critically, for they define our present and limit our future. The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the simplicity of Chhattisgarh adivasis, the mathematical ability of Tamil brahmins, the ability of German companies to build precision instruments, the courteousness (“How are you doing?”) of a white bus driver in Boston, the sense of justice of the British, the spirit of entrepreneurship of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among brown folks—this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence “by nature”. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad.

This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscates strands of commonality between them but also works against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot “save” themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean brown men)—piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of an internal theorising that one is among the very few with the “wrong” skin but the “right” nature.

Our world has this organisation, this “civilisational” pecking order of sorts, which manages to encroach upon our innermost subjectivities, deeply colouring our attitudes and aspirations. It even warps our sense of aesthetics, so much so that we cannot even make ourselves dislike what we may know to be bad. For example, my modern urban aesthetic can only imagine beauty in concrete while I know that paving the ground makes rainwater run off, causing water tables to drop. The alternatives, soil, dust, clay, have lost all aesthetic appeal, irrespective of my public posturing. This crisis has multiple far-reaching implications—environmental effects are only one of them.

imageIllustration: Vaibhav Raghunandan

It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilisational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalised. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equaliser when dehumanised Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the “animal” and the “ideal”, both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iPhone-toting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water.

There was no queue. There was no “discipline”. There was no “West”. There is no “West” without surplus—the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. “What’s the correct way to wash clothes without the machine? You are from India, you know right!” Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He said, “and then spin by hand?” He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential “progress” due to difference in “intrinsic” nature become dubious in such circumstances.

Of course, electricity gets restored. But to look at your belief system being battered by a hurricane is not easy.

It is not easy to see unclean public lavatories that you thought you had left behind in the tropics. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some. In the gullet of Manhattan, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in the most exclusive of hotels. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on for us to aspire and be awed. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable on this earth.

For a significant part of the year I live in a locality of Kolkata. This is also where I grew up—a distinctly “down-market” area called Chetla. People often wear lungis on streets and near the railway bridge, there are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble my people from Chetla? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look early in the morning? Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly high number of “Thank yous” , “Sorrys” and “Excuse mes” I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerise? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unravelling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.

Hurricanes can only pull out a couple of such veils, that too very briefly. Meanwhile, in other parts of global urbania that are playing catch-up, elaborate mechanisms of creating lavatories and frequently cleaning them are being finalised. However, they do not have the advantage of acquiring shipfuls of humans from Senegal. Their dreams of creating a “world-class” Delhi need more than a few fingers of Katam Suresh of Gompad, Chattisgarh. One needs many Chhattisgarhs, millions of fingers to adorn the necks of thousands of unreformed “Angulimalas”. To “naturally” fit into the class of connoisseurs of “Belgian” chocolate, one needs to be better than King Leopold. King Leopold of Belgium. Google him. Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor. Even their names sound better between hurricanes.

Garga Chatterjee is a columnist and fellow at MIT Boston in the US


# India–No Toilet, No Bride – Jairam Ramesh and story of tribal woman



Press Trust of India : Kota, Mon Oct 22 2012,

Days after he kicked up a row by stating that there are more temples than toilets in India, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh Sunday urged women not to marry into families that do not have toilets in their homes.


“Don’t get married in a house where there is no toilet,” he told a gathering, mostly of women, at Khajuri village near Kota. “You consult astrologers about rahu-ketu or planetary positions before getting married. You should also look whether there is a toilet at your groom’s home before you decide to get married.”


Ramesh, who launched the third edition of Nirmal Bharat Yatra at Sangod here, cited a slogan coined by the Haryana government, “No toilet, no bride”.


Ramesh also narrated the story of Anita Narre, who left her husband’s home in Madhya Pradesh two days after her wedding when she found the house didn’t have a toilet. Noting that sanitation is an


issue related to women’s dignity and safety, Ramesh said Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan is a people’s movement aimed at eradicating the menace of open defecation in 10 years.


The Rural Development


Minister also criticised Rajasthan for not doing enough to provide proper sanitation facilities to the people.


He pointed out that of the 9,177 gram panchayats in Rajasthan, only 321 have become free from open defecation.


Meanwhile, members of saffron outfits showed black flags to Ramesh at various places protesting against his temple and toilet remarks.

The Minister had recently said that the country has more temples than toilets, leading to protests by right wing Hindu outfits.

 Last year, a tribal woman rejected her in-law’s house because there was no toilet in it. Soon after her marriage, she snubbed her newly wedded-husband and told him that she would live as his wife only if he got a latrine constructed. Otherwise, she would continue to live in her father’s house.

Anita was pursuing a BA degree when her father decided to marry her away to Shivram Narre of Bhimpur tehsil. Like every obedient daughter, she agreed to marry Shivram even though he was an agricultural labourer belonging to a BPL family and was less educated than her. But all hell broke loose when she was asked to go to the fields the morning after her marriage on May 14, 2011. The newly wedded bride did not utter a word when she saw the latrine of Jheetudhhana under the open skies. She survived the ordeal in her in-laws’for two days after which, according to tradition, she had to go back to her parents’ house for further rituals.

Once inside her parents’home in Chicholi town, she refused to go back to Jheetudhhana. When the husband came to take her home, she flatly refused. He asked why? In reply, Anita said: Because there is no proper toilet facility in that house.” She asked her husband to come and fetch her only after that toilet had been constructed. Anita’s refusal to go back to the in-laws initiated a revolution in Jheetudhhana. First Shivram went to the janpadh panchayat asking for government schemes that helped in toilet construction. The panchayat helped him with organising funds and a latrine was built at the back of his house.

But as Anita’s story spread through the village, Jheetudhhana’s residents started planning the construction of toilet in every hutment for fear that more girls will refuse to live there. Villagers flocked to the janpadh panchayat with applications for funds to build toilets. Meanwhile, the district administration of Betul has sent a recommendation to the state government to make Anita Narre the brand ambassador for Madhya Pradesh’s sanitary programmes.


India- A stinking mess

The Hindu, Editorial. Oct 9,2012

Census  2011 threw up a malodorous statistic: people in 49.8 per cent of households have  no toilet facilities and defecate in the open. In contrast, 63.2 per cent of  households have a telephone connection, of which 52.3 per cent have cell phones;  as for televisions, almost half of the country’s households possess one. Nobody  would even whisper in protest if someone, struck by this perverse anomaly, were  to say that Indians needs toilets more than they do television sets and  telephones. So why is there such blather over some perfectly reasonable remarks  by Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh which were intended to  stress that India requires more toilets than it does more temples? His  suggestion that India has more temples than toilets was not part of an  anti-religious tirade but a piece of hyperbole to stress the importance of  sanitation in a speech to panchayat-level workers at the launch of a campaign to  end open defecation. To suggest, as some have, that it was an insidious attempt  to hyphenate toilets and temples in an ugly alliterative juxtaposition is rank  nonsense.

In a  country where politics hungrily attempts to feed off prickly religious  sensitivities, Mr. Ramesh’s comments have been twisted out of context and blown  out of all proportion. BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy has alleged that such  comments would destroy the “fine fabric of religion and faith” and the fierce  chorus of protests have led the Congress to forsake principle for expedience and  distance itself from Mr. Ramesh’s remarks. Predictably, in this republic of hurt  sentiments, at least one complaint has already been lodged with the police  asking that a case be booked against him for outraging religious feelings — which, given the circumstances, reads like poor toilet humour. The only voice in  favour of Mr. Ramesh emerged from Sulabh International, an NGO committed to the  building of toilets. Organisations like these understand how vital toilets are  to the well-being of India. A World Bank study conducted a couple of years ago  estimated the economic impact of the lack of toilets and sanitation facilities,  which it pegged at a staggering Rs. 24,000 crore annually — or 6.4 per cent of  India’s GDP. This loss is created by deaths, especially of children, the cost of  treating hygiene-related illnesses, losses from reduced productivity and educed  tourism revenues. Open defecation is an ugly reminder of the country’s poverty  and the failure of the government to provide adequate water and sanitation  facilities. But it is more than a matter of shame and embarrassment — it has  social and economic implications that this country can hardly afford.

India woman leaves home for lack of toilet


Anita Narre refused to go to her husband's home until he built a toilet


BBC 14th Feb,2012

A newlywed woman in a village in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has won her struggle to have a toilet at her husband’s home.

Anita Narre left husband Shivram’s home two days after her marriage in May last year because the house had no toilet.

She returned eight days later after Shivram, a daily wage worker, built one with savings and aid from villagers.

An NGO announced a $10,000 reward for Mrs Narre for her “brave” decision and forcing her husband to build a toilet.

More than half-a-billion Indians still lack access to basic sanitation.

The problem is acute in rural India and it is the women who suffer most.

Shivram said he was not able to build a toilet at home because of lack of money.

He admitted that his wife returned home only after he constructed one with his savings and “some support from the village council”.

“It is not nice for women to go outside to defecate. That’s why every home should have a toilet. Those who don’t should make sure there is one,” Mrs Narre told the BBC.

Many people in India do not have access to flush toilets or other latrines.

But under new local laws in states including Chhattisgarh, people’s representatives are obliged to construct a flush toilet in their own home within a year of being elected. Those who fail to do so face dismissal.

The law making toilets mandatory has been introduced in several states as part of the “sanitation for all” drive by the Indian government.

The programme aims to eradicate the practice of open defecation, which is common in rural and poor urban areas of India.

Special funds are made available for people to construct toilets to promote hygiene and eradicate the practice of faeces collection – or scavenging – which is mainly carried out by low-caste people


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