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The World

Drawing a curtain on old ways

In India, a villager uses his own strategy in a campaign to encourage the use of toilets instead of the great outdoors.

September 06, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

"We see signs, for example, of upper-class people now pressuring poor neighbors not to defecate in their fields. It is no longer always a socially acceptable act."

Experts say widespread change won't occur until people understand the connection to public health.

During the monsoon season, when water levels rise, Dr. Singh and his colleagues at the clinic see more than 200 patients a day who suffer from skin boils, intestinal ailments and other maladies attributable to ingesting contaminated water. Almost all have no idea why they are sick.

The doctor says he doesn't expect to see significant change until rural India's notoriously low literacy levels improve.

"They are uneducated and illiterate," Singh says. "When we get a chance, we try to explain the connection between going in the fields and their health. But look at how busy we are. We don't have the time to go into detail with every person."

Yet not everyone sees illiteracy as the root of the problem.

"Even literate people in villages squat outdoors," says Sudhirendar Sharma, a water expert and development analyst with the Ecological Foundation, a nongovernmental agency in New Delhi. "People who have spent all their lives in villages tend to live in a culture in which it is not a taboo to defecate in the open."

Sharma says the use of public humiliation with whistles and lights is an intriguing tactic. But he worries, too, about the ethics of self-appointed scolds policing people's intimate habits.

"Humiliation may work, but people do this in the dark or in hiding because it is a private act, not necessarily because they are ashamed," Sharma says. "There are bound to be people who say, 'Who gives you the right to encroach on my privacy?' "

But "Luv" Singh says defecation in open places is a community issue, and sanitation a matter of pride for the village.

He beams when he describes his work, and eagerly leads a visitor down one-lane roads that cut across Hasanpur's rich green fields to show off new toilets and a freshwater pump at the school. Singh says he, too, grew up relieving himself in the rice paddies. Now, he says, village children find it just as natural to use the toilet.

"If we can stop it, our life span will go up," he says.

What about public urination, he is asked? What are the prospects of stopping that ubiquitous, unsanitary habit?

The men surrounding Singh break into laughter.

"That, I can't stop," he says.

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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