A Toilet in Every Home

 

In 2010, I found myself working in Noida, India – a modern pop-up city on the outskirts of Delhi.

Narendra Modi, a lifelong political operative, was angling to become the 14th prime minister of India. One of the more unusual planks of his platform was the aspiration to put a toilet in every home.   (At the time, about half the homes in India didn’t have indoor toilets, and those that did were predominantly in cities or their surrounding sprawl.)

Who wouldn’t want to have a toilet?

It turns out that approximately 500 million of the electorate did not.

Odd, that. Anyone who’s ever visited an outhouse at summer camp or a port-o-potty at a music fest would most certainly choose a private and sanitary toilet over an outdoor alternative. So one would think.

But while Modi’s moonshot made sense to me, it didn’t to a half billion people.

I was surprised at the quiet skepticism expressed over Modi’s gambit. In conversations with taxi drivers, restaurant servers, and hotel staff, I learned that many rural Indians questioned why anyone would want to do that thing indoors … where one eats and sleeps … where the children play … where one meditates and prays. Their position was that there were indoor things and outdoor things. That thing was definitely an outdoor thing.

I concluded: not everyone wanted to have a toilet.

* * *

My work took me from India to Prague – where coincidentally 99% of homes had indoor toilets.

Over the ensuing months, I got to know my workmates well. Most of them were in their late 20s and early 30s with their parents being in their late 50s and early 60s.

Living and operating out of a hotel room for the better part of a year, my colleagues sometimes invited me to their homes on the weekends to relieve my monotony. Sunday dinners often included extended family thus gave me access to people who had begun their adult lives under communist rule and were completing them under liberty. (Remember: the Czech Republic broke away in 1989.)

Having grown up the grandson of people who had fled the grip of tyranny in Poland and Ukraine in the 1910s and ’20s, I relished those weekends … I was eager to learn what their early lives had been like under Gustáv Husák, the long-time First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It had to have been brutal … suffocating. So one would think.

This cadre of middle-aged, post-break-up Czechs, however, didn’t agree. They pined for a less frenetic, less complicated life. Things like career management, social mobility, and home ownership were overwhelming to them. Late in the evenings, encouraged by Karlsbader Becherbitter – a preferred digestif – and the many beers before it, they’d confided in me that the new way wasn’t as comfortable as the old way. And if given the chance to turn back the hands of time, they might.

I concluded: not everyone wants to have liberty.

* * *

This week, in reaction to the terrorist incursion into Israel, former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told CNN’s Jack Tapper, “… there are so many of these people who want to be free from this terrorist rule, they want to be free from all of that …”

(She isn’t unique in using this assertion to justify her position. Bush the senior drew the same connection. Clinton said something similar. W used it. And had I been paying attention, I’d probably have found Obama standing on similar ground. It’s the halcyon call of all Western elites and parties.)

For decades, the West has justified its interventions in foreign affairs using precisely this reasoning: all people want to be able to speak freely, to pursue any vocation, to worship anything or nothing at all, to assemble, to assemble and complain while assembled, to expect decorum and fairness from police and justices, and to suffer no punishment greater than the gravity of the infraction, e.g., no getting tossed off the roof of a building for holding hands with another man at a theater. So one would think.

But not everyone wants a toilet in his home.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
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    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    At the risk of derailing the excellent primary point of the post, several years ago my wife accompanied our church youth on a work project trip into a section of the United States in which houses with satellite television receivers outnumbered houses with indoor plumbing.

    I think you could find the same in many small villages in Russia or Ukraine. 

    • #31
  2. kedavis Coolidge
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    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    At the risk of derailing the excellent primary point of the post, several years ago my wife accompanied our church youth on a work project trip into a section of the United States in which houses with satellite television receivers outnumbered houses with indoor plumbing.

    I think you could find the same in many small villages in Russia or Ukraine.

    Somewhere around 1970, maybe 71 or 72 or 73… when I was a kid, we took a family trip to visit Mom’s grandmother in a small town in South Dakota.  The house had a hand-operated water pump at the kitchen sink, but everything else was outdoors.

    • #32
  3. MarciN Member
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    Roderic (View Comment):

    MarciN (View Comment):

    This is a wonderful heartwarming post, full of respect and friendship.

    But I agree completely George W. Bush:

    The fight against the forces of extremism is the great ideological struggle of our time. And in this fight, our nations have a weapon more powerful than bombs or bullets. It is the desire for freedom and justice written into our hearts by Almighty God — and no terrorist or tyrant can take that away. We see this desire in the 12 million Iraqis who dipped their fingers in purple ink as they voted in defiance of al Qaeda. We see the desire in the Palestinians who elected a President committed to peace and reconciliation. We see this desire in the thousands of Lebanese whose protests helped rid their country of a foreign occupier. And we see this desire in the brave dissidents and journalists who speak out against terror and oppression and injustice. We see this desire in the ordinary people across the Middle East, who are sick of violence, who are sick of corruption, sick of empty promises — and who choose a free future whenever they are given a chance.

    I strongly recommend people read the entire speech.

    I am blessed to have a husband and three children, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren. What I know from these people who bless my life is that change is good, even and especially change I never thought I wanted or needed. Each of them, in one way or another, has pushed me to try new things.

    The great tragedy of our human condition is that we are very adaptable. That’s a good way to be when facing a stint in the hospital or a new job.

    But it also holds us back from enjoying and making the most of our life.

    Freedom means different things to different people. In the early days of the United States, New Englanders wanted the freedom to outlaw religions they didn’t like. Southerners wanted the freedom to keep slaves and do with them as they liked. People in the western territories wanted freedom from government laws and taxes.

    I’m quite sure Hamas wants the freedom to murder Jews.

    Everyone wants freedom, but we have to know what they mean by that before we endorse it.

    My father-in-law used to say, “Your freedom ends at the tip of my nose.” :) :) 

    • #33
  4. The Reticulator Member
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    kedavis (View Comment):

    It would be like arguing that bathing/showering should be done outdoors, lest water get everywhere in the house.  But there’s a tub, or something, so water DOESN’T get everywhere.

    I can understand that sentiment.  After watching a bunch of YouTube videos about failed shower tile jobs that resulted in significant water damage to homes, I got to wondering why anyone ever allowed running water inside his home.  

    • #34
  5. Full Size Tabby Member
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    Levi King: I learned that many rural Indians questioned why anyone would want to do that thing indoors … where one eats and sleeps … where the children play … where one meditates and prays. Their position was that there were indoor things and outdoor things. That thing was definitely an outdoor thing.

    Perhaps not an indoor vs. outdoor discussion, but in my amusement glancing at recreational vehicle layouts (floorpans) I sometimes wonder about the proximity of the toilet to the food preparation space I see in some of the smaller layouts that to me create a non-trivial risk of contamination.  

    • #35
  6. kedavis Coolidge
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    @kedavis

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    It would be like arguing that bathing/showering should be done outdoors, lest water get everywhere in the house. But there’s a tub, or something, so water DOESN’T get everywhere.

    I can understand that sentiment. After watching a bunch of YouTube videos about failed shower tile jobs that resulted in significant water damage to homes, I got to wondering why anyone ever allowed running water inside his home.

    The tile thing seems kinda dumb to me.  Unless if used with some underlying containment, where the tile is just decoration.

    • #36
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