Posted by: aboutalbion | December 29, 2014

In the footsteps of Thomas Crapper …

I will walk around a public art gallery … but I never feel that I understand what the artist’s standpoint is.  If I am told that the canvas shows what the artist’s “sees”, then I say to myself that I would prefer the image from a camera.  And this might explain my preference for ‘realistic’ pictures over ‘impressionistic’ ones.  But, canvas or camera, I generally feel detached from images. 

However, I saw a set of images recently that really did connect viscerally with the centre of me.  And that is because visiting someone else’s bathroom is a commonplace experience.  These images were a set produced by the BBC for World Toilet Day a month or so ago.  [‘BBC News My Toilet’ in a Google search will take you to these images.]  These fifteen arresting images visit ‘the bathroom’ in a variety of worldwide cultural settings and jolted me into realising afresh that I should not take my bathroom arrangements as normal.

And then my weekend newspaper last Saturday brought these eye-catching images back to mind, and went one step further on to tell me about India’s leading sanitation crusader, Bindeshwar Pathak, and his campaign to alter a long-established cultural custom of open defecation.  WHO reports talk about one billion people practising open defecation worldwide, of which around sixty per cent live in India.

Bindeshwar Pathak has spent a lifetime improving India’s toilet arrangements.  Since 1970, his company has installed over one million toilets across India.  And now, at the age of 71, he will oversee the installation of 120 million toilets by 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

Around a hundred and thirty years ago, Thomas Crapper, with a royal warrant, was asked to supply and fit toilets to Sandringham (a rural royal property), and his legendary reputation blossomed after this.  Now Bindeshwar Pathak’s plan has the backing of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and finance from central government and from India’s biggest mobile phone company, and forms part of the “Clean India” campaign to improve hygiene.

However, the real challenge in India is to adjust the cultural belief that a home should not be polluted by a toilet.  This belief has created the occupational group of people who will handle and dispose of the human waste of others – the caste of ‘untouchables’.

I am left wondering if the outcome of Bindeshwar Pathak’s latest work might depend on the willingness of ‘untouchables’ to retrain as plumbers, Thomas Crapper’s occupation.


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