Class One Toilets

When it comes to access to sanitation, the worst social prejudices are revealed.

This is a kind of reservation the government might have wanted to keep under wraps. An RTI application filed by this paper has revealed that certain government offices — including the PMO and the offices of the home and environment ministries — cordon off a number of toilets for the exclusive use of senior officers. This August, the PMO even passed around a stern circular threatening "suitable action" against those who broke the rules and left "the premises dirty". "For Officers Only", plastered on toilet doors, now joins a lexicon of exclusion and prejudice.

With more than half of India's population going without toilets, the lack of sanitation in the country has long been a harrowing problem. And when it comes to access to sanitation, our worst social prejudices — whether it is caste, class or gender — are thrown into sharp relief. According to a report by the National Confederation for Dalit Organisations, only 23.7 per cent of Dalit households have access to latrines, compared to 42.3 per cent of non-Dalit households. In urban areas, the number of public toilets is heavily skewed in favour of men — according to a 2009 study, Delhi had 1,534 toilets for men while women had only 132. For women in slum areas, excluded from public facilities, answering nature's call is a daily battle against harassment and even violence. Sanitation seems to be treated as a luxury of the rich, rather than a basic right, and access to toilets determined by ideas of pollution and purity.

It is even more troubling that some of these attitudes, at least, are embedded in government departments, the very institutions that should be militating against such discrimination and, to be fair, are still the most inclusive spaces when it comes to employment. Ensuring hygienic sanitation for all citizens seems a far cry. The government could start with taking down a notice.

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