During a visit to China, Devi Lal, then India's agricultural minister, made a great impression on the Chinese leadership by his knowledge of things agricultural. Even though he had been invited to study Chinese agriculture, his hosts found his observations and queries so insightful that they took him to more and more places so that they too could learn from his asides.
On one field trip, Devi Lal, the tallest Jat from Haryana, towering above his Chinese counterpart in every sense of the term, stood on a piece of high ground, put his hands on his hips, and began to survey a mega farm. The Chinese waited for his pearls of wisdom. Devi Lal leaned over and whispered something in the Indian ambassador's ear that made the emissary, an expert Mandarin speaker, turn pale, then white as a sheet.
Devi Lal had whispered a simple question. "Kisaan tatti kahan kartay hain?" (Where do the peasants shit?) The Chinese, prolific spitters off the main highways, do, nevertheless, have a sense of delicacy about the theme Devi Lal had touched upon.
In the dictionary of his mind, the ambassador translated "shit" into "nitrogenous waste matter" for which expression he found a suitably ornate word in Mandarin. When he communicated the query to the Chinese agriculture minister, he froze and blinked and blinked and shook his head like a sage who had seen light. Devi Lal had spotted the biggest gap in Chinese agriculture: want of adequate toilet arrangements for peasants.
I have embellished this Devi Lal yarn with a purpose. Middle class squeamishness sometimes obviates scrutiny of basic issues. It was courageous of Narendra Modi to have dwelt on the absence of toilets in the countryside and on the shame of our unclean cities. He touched on numerous other themes. When even our Gods and Goddesses are manufactured in China, it is time someone spoke of reviving Indian manufacture. That is an idea whose revival will take time.
Toilets for rural households and cleanliness in cities is a revolution the Modi government can start tomorrow.
Let us not talk about Gujarat which is probably much better off in this regard than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Let him begin with the National Capital Region where, by Modi's own definition, he is still an outsider. Before staleness sets in, let him appoint an official in his own office with a strict mandate: in six months to a year, the official must have in his hand a comprehensive blueprint for toilets for Delhi's villages and the hundreds of thousands of pavement dwellers. Nobody knows where they go for their ablutions. Also, there must be a plan for the removal of garbage dumps.
Let this official be a regular member of the Indian Administrative Service. Try giving him a suitable job description, say, Secretary Toilets. My guess is that he will bolt the service, go back to his village and arrange a hundred havans to get this Rahu out of Ketu in the quickest possible time. If he happens to be a Muslim, Deoband will launch an agitation.
Alright, for national tranquility, let us call him Officer on Special Duty. Let this OSD begin his inquiries by visiting important hotels, hospitals, major multistoreyed blocks and seek out the managements to show him the toilets on the premises. He will discover that those manning these facilities are six inches shorter and a few shades darker than other management cadre on the premises. They are not even on the rolls of these outfits. They cannot be. How can a toilet cleaner be promoted as a lobby manager, for example. How can he even dream to ever become a Food and Beverages manager?
Garbage dumps, thousands of them around the city, cannot be removed for similar reasons. Rag pickers employed to load the garbage trucks have found a market, heaven knows where, for the scrap they pick from the garbage bins parked in these dumps. A chain of interests has developed around each one of these. They have become sources of livelihood.
Outside of India I have seen men and women find privacy behind the sand dunes in, for example, the Sahara desert. The picture cannot be very different in the sandier part of the Thar Desert. Within an hour of daybreak, every particle evaporates in the sharp "shams" or sun.
In Europe, atleast upto the 18th century, ablutions were a taboo. Wolfgang Mozart and his brothers died young of ailments from lack of washing. In Andalusia, on the other hand, a culture of Hamams and libraries prevailed since the arrival of the "Moors" in the 8th century. In fact one of the charges during the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 was quite extraordinary: "He Bathes". This history has something to do with the culture of toilet paper introduced by the British in the colonies even where, otherwise, plenty of water was available.
A tropical country needs ablutions for minimal hygiene. It required considerable self belief for Modi to dwell on the theme at such length on such an occasion.
(17.08.2014 A senior commentator on diplomatic and political affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)