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Environment 101: Toilets -When Some Malaysians Unfairly Laugh At India

India Toilet Akshay Kumar Movie

India is often criticized by some Malaysian commenters for its lack of toilets, which is a serious issue that has been addressed by various initiatives and even a movie. However, these commenters tend to ignore that other countries including Malaysia also face sanitation challenges. Therefore, it is unfair and biased to single out India for this problem without acknowledging the broader context and the efforts made to solve it. Image source: IMDB

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General Misconception of India

One of the arguments that are thrown by some people on social media to diminish the role of India and the Indian Government is that the Indians don’t use toilets & there are not enough toilets for the population.

Further, they claim India is a poor country that cannot manage itself but wants to support others. One example is this tweet which was posted after India expressed its support to Israel:-

Twitter India Malaysia Toilet

This is stupidity of the highest order because firstly there is a historical & valid reason why India supports Israel and secondly these people had forgotten that even in modern Malaysia, there are places where there are no proper roads, no clean water for donkey odd years, failed flood mitigation despite millions spent on flood mitigation projects, and citizens not having any access to modern facilities.

But let’s tackle the burning question of why Indians do not have modern toilets.

You need to keep in mind that India is a vast (3.29 million square kilometres against Malaysia’s size of just 0.33 million square kilometres) and diverse country with a population of over 1.43 billion people (against Malaysia’s 34.3 million).

Lack of Toilets in India – Key Factors

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2002, about 40% of Indians do not have access to a toilet at home, and more than 500 million people practice open defecation in rural areas. Many factors contribute to the lack of access to modern toilets in India.

Poverty and inequality

Poverty is defined as the inability to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health and education. There are different ways to measure poverty, such as income-based, consumption-based or multidimensional approaches.

Many poor households cannot afford to build or maintain a toilet or pay for water and sewerage services. They may also lack secure land tenure or face social discrimination that prevents them from accessing public toilets.

According to the World Bank, India’s poverty rate based on income was 83.8% in 2019, meaning that more than 8 out of 10 Indians were living on less than $1.90 a day, the international poverty line. This was an increase from 82.6% in 2018 and a slight decline from 88.7% in 2016. However, this measure does not capture other aspects of poverty such as education, health, nutrition, sanitation and access to electricity.

A more comprehensive measure of poverty is the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which assesses the deprivations faced by individuals in three dimensions: health, education and living standards. According to the Global MPI Reports 2019 and 2020, 21.9% of the population was poor in India in 2019, or the number of poor was pegged at 269.8 million. This was a significant improvement from 55.1% in 2006. However, India still ranked 66th out of 109 countries in the Global MPI 2021 ranking.

According to the World Poverty Clock, a real-time estimate of poverty based on income, Bihar had the highest poverty rate of 43.2% in December 2021, followed by Jharkhand (38%) and Uttar Pradesh (36.4%). On the other hand, Goa had the lowest poverty rate of 5%, followed by Kerala (5.4%) and Delhi (5.8%).

According to Statista, a data platform, children under 15 years old were the most affected by poverty in India, with an estimated number of 37 million living in poverty in 2023.

Moreover, according to the Global MPI Reports, Scheduled Tribes (STs) had the highest incidence of multidimensional poverty (49%) in India in 2019, followed by Scheduled Castes (SCs) (36%) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (22%).

Poverty Poor India Map Toilet

NITI Aayog Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023 shows that 13.5 crore Indians escaped poverty between 2016 and 2021. The number of states with less than 10 per cent of people living in multidimensional poverty doubled in the five years between 2016 and 2021. Image source: Drishtiaas

Cultural and behavioural norms

According to a 2017 report by UNICEF and WHO, India has the highest number of people who practice open defecation in the world, with an estimated 522 million people or 39% of the population. This is despite the government’s efforts to provide sanitation facilities and promote hygiene education through various campaigns, such as the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission).

One reason why people defecate in the open in India is the lack of social norms and incentives to use toilets. Many people do not feel any pressure or motivation to change their behaviour, as they do not face any consequences or rewards for their actions.

They may not care about what others think or say about them, as they are used to seeing others do the same. They may not realize the impact of their behaviour on themselves, their families and their communities, as they do not see any direct link between open defecation and diseases, malnutrition or poverty.

Infrastructure and governance

India has a large and complex sanitation sector that involves multiple actors and levels of government. However, there is often a lack of coordination, accountability, and transparency among them.

However, one reason why people defecate in the open in India is the lack of access and availability of toilets. Even though the government has built millions of toilets across the country, many of them are not functional, well-maintained or user-friendly. Some toilets may lack water supply, drainage, ventilation or privacy.

Some toilets may be shared by too many people or located too far from their homes. Some toilets may be vandalized, locked or occupied by animals. As a result, many people prefer to defecate in the open rather than use these toilets.

Education and Awareness

Finally, one reason why people defecate in the open in India is the lack of awareness and knowledge about the health benefits of using toilets. Many people believe that defecating in the open is more natural, healthy and convenient than using a toilet.

They may also have cultural or religious beliefs that associate toilets with impurity or pollution. For example, some people may think that toilets are meant only for women or sick people, or that they should not be built near their homes or places of worship.

India Malaysia Rubbish Thrash Environment Stadium

This is in 2022 and in Malaysia – rubbish is thrown by the supporters after the Negri Sembilan FC football match at the Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Paroi, Negri Sembilan. As usual, we have 1st class infrastructure but 3rd class mentality. Image source: The Vibes

Public Toilets Situation In Malaysia

Do you still remember the condition of the toilet during your school days? I recall mine looking almost like a haunted house and there is a scary tree growing out of the toilet bowl. No one dared to enter the toilet for the big one as no one wanted to spend too much time inside this toilet. It took years before this toilet was demolished and a new clean, brightly lit toilet was built.

Situation of Toilets in Malaysia

It is hilarious that whilst we laugh at other countries’ lack of toilets & sanitation, the situation in Malaysia is not perfect. Some people with zero civic minds still throw rubbish anywhere they feel like throwing it, especially after a major event, not flushing after doing their business in the toilet and leaving the area dirty.

One of the main challenges in improving public toilets in Malaysia is the lack of awareness and responsibility among the users and operators. Many people do not care about keeping the toilets clean and hygienic after using them.

They may litter, vandalize, or flush inappropriate items down the toilet. Some operators do not provide adequate facilities, such as soap, tissue paper, or bins. They may also neglect regular cleaning and maintenance of the toilets.

A  Problem Acknowledged

The fact is the condition of public toilets especially in schools was very bad and was ignored until it was taken up by the Unity Government under Anwar Ibrahim in 2022.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim pledges that all school toilets in the country will be repaired by Dec 2023.

As part of the election promise, he said the Pakatan Harapan government is the only government to take the toilet cleanliness issue seriously as it involves the health of young children and students.

Anwar said he said he would look into fundings to bear the cost of upgrading these toilets so that Malaysian children will have clean and safe toilets.

(Source: Sinar Daily)

Further initiatives were taken by Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming as part of his Ministry KPI:-

“I would like to point out that the cleanliness of public toilets is closely related to the image of the country, especially in the main tourist destinations or gateways to our country.

“Doubtlessly, “BMW” standard public toilets namely Bersih (clean), Menawan (attractive) and Wangi (fragrant) will go a long way to increase the positive perception of the people towards the local authorities (PBT).”

On this note, Nga hopes that all the 155 local authorities across the country can establish public toilet hygiene monitoring units to carry out maintenance work according to schedule to ensure that public toilets throughout the country are always in a clean, well-functioning and orderly condition.

(Source: Focus Malaysia)

The tragic part of these initiatives was that some Malaysians laughed at this, forgetting that it is a long outstanding issue faced by school children in particular.

Decisive Action by Unity Government

To address these issues, several steps and policies have been taken by various stakeholders, such as the government, local authorities, NGOs, and private sectors. Some of these are:

  • The Ministry of Housing and Local Government has issued guidelines and standards for public toilet design, construction, operation, and management. These include specifications for toilet layout, ventilation, lighting, water supply, drainage, fixtures, fittings, accessories, signage, and safety features. The guidelines also cover the frequency and methods of cleaning and disinfection of public toilets.
  • The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has launched a Clean Toilet Campaign to promote public toilet cleanliness among tourists and operators. The campaign involves rating public toilets based on their cleanliness and facilities using a star system. The ratings are displayed on signboards outside the toilets. The campaign also provides training and incentives for operators to improve their toilet management practices.
  • The Quality Restroom Association Malaysia (QRAM) is a non-governmental organization that advocates for public toilet improvement in Malaysia. QRAM conducts audits, surveys, research, education, and awareness programs on public toilet issues. QRAM also organizes an annual National Toilet Expo and Forum to showcase best practices and innovations in public toilet design and management.
  • Some private sectors have also taken initiatives to improve public toilets in Malaysia. For example, Petronas has upgraded its petrol station toilets to meet international standards. The toilets are equipped with modern amenities, such as air fresheners, hand dryers, bidets, baby changing stations, and disabled-friendly features. The toilets are also monitored by CCTV cameras and cleaned regularly by trained staff.

Notably, there is still room for improvement and more collaboration among all parties involved but Malaysia is indeed on the right path.

Chart Toilet India

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he vowed to improve access to clean toilets by investing billions of dollars. He immediately launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (“Clean India”) campaign on October 2, 2014, intending to eliminate open defecation and manual scavenging within five years. Chart source: Statista

Efforts to Provide Toilets

India has launched several initiatives and policies to address these challenges to improve sanitation coverage and behaviour change. For example, the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) aims to make India open defecation-free by 2022 by building toilets, promoting awareness, and incentivizing communities.

Policies & Programs on Poverty

To reduce poverty in India, various policies and programs have been implemented by the government and other stakeholders such as civil society organizations, private sector actors and international agencies. Some of these include:-

  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)
  • Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY)
  • Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY)
  • Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY)
  • National Food Security Act (NFSA)
  • Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB-PMJAY)
  • National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM)
  • Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY)
  • National Education Policy (NEP)
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 global goals that aim to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure peace and prosperity for everyone.

The 17 SDGs cover various aspects of social, economic and environmental sustainability, such as:

  1. No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Good Health and Well-being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduced Inequalities: Reduce income inequality within and among countries
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

The SDGs are interlinked and indivisible, meaning that progress in one area will affect outcomes in others. They also require the participation of all stakeholders, from governments to civil society to the private sector, to ensure their successful implementation.

The UN provides various platforms and tools to monitor the progress of the SDGs, such as the annual Sustainable Development Goals Report, the Voluntary National Reviews, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Global Indicator Framework and the SDG Knowledge Platform.

The SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty and hunger, protect the planet from degradation, ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity, and forge partnerships that will leave no one behind.

Social & Good Civil Mindness

It is also important to understand and influence the social and behavioural factors that shape people’s preferences and choices. This can be done by using various strategies, such as:

  • Creating demand and desire for toilets through effective communication and marketing campaigns that appeal to people’s emotions, aspirations and values.
  • Enhancing the supply and quality of toilets through innovative design and technology solutions that make them attractive, comfortable and convenient to use.
  • Strengthening enforcement and accountability mechanisms that monitor and reward toilet usage and penalize open defecation.
  • Engaging communities and leaders in collective action and social change processes that foster a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride in sanitation.

By applying these strategies, it is possible to change the behaviour and mindset of people who defecate in the open in India. This will not only improve their health and well-being but also contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

However, there is still a long way to go to achieve universal access to modern toilets and ensure their sustainable use in India.

Final Say

It is important to acknowledge that no country is flawless, especially when it has to deal with the complex and diverse needs of over a billion citizens. India and Malaysia both face challenges in terms of poverty and sanitation, which are common problems in many developing nations.

Therefore, we should not judge or mock India or even other countries based on stereotypes or misinformation about its lack of toilets or hygiene, but rather respect its efforts and achievements in overcoming these difficulties.

The Indian Government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has implemented various initiatives and policies to improve the living standards and economic prospects of its people and has shown remarkable progress in many areas.

However, changing the habits and attitudes of 1.43 billion people who live in different regions, speak different languages, and follow different cultures is not a simple task. It requires time, education, and cooperation to ensure that everyone has access to and uses proper sanitation facilities.

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