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Lessons from London

Mallika Nawal ( is an author and lawyer, and teaches at the Development Management Institute, Patna.

The sanitation debacle of 19th-century London foretells the failure of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission.

In our struggle to make India open defecation free (ODF), it is important to understand our present ignominious sanitation problem. This can be achieved by revisiting history, to learn just how our erstwhile colonisers battled their own sanitation problems. To glean an understanding of the problem confronting 19th-century London, consider Liza Picard, who in Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840–1870, wrote:

A writer can use words to describe a scene. A painter can paint it. A musician, and a sound-effect studio, can reproduce to some extent the sounds of the past. But that most potent of senses, smell, has no vocabulary … Think of the worst smell you have ever met. Now imagine what it was like to have that in your nostrils all day and all night, all over London ... Every stinking breath was dangerous. Miasma, bad air, or as the Italians called it, malaria, brought disease ...

By 1841 the census counted 19,45,000 people in London, and probably more … There were 200,000 cesspits, full and overflowing. The night-soil men charged a shilling to empty each one, which many people grudged.

In fact, the overcrowding in London so alarmed Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, that after a visit to Edinburgh he wrote, “I believe that in no city in the world so many people have so little room.” London, in the 19th century, was actually an unbearably dirty place, a foul-smelling nightmare, overflowing with human filth.

While on the one hand, there were overflowing cesspits in people’s cellars—where excrement and human waste were collected to be emptied by “night-soil men”—on the other, there were chamber pots, which were manually emptied either into the cesspits or thrown directly onto the streets. Human excrement would pave the streets of London, only to be washed by the rains into the Thames.

Post the Industrial Revolution, London saw a huge wave of people lining up to work in its new factories. To make room for this large influx, tenements would rise as high as 14 storeys, but the lack of lavatories meant that residents were forced to open their windows and empty their chamber pots out below.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in 1749, the “Nastiness Act” was passed that decreed chamber pots could only be tossed out between 10 pm and 7 am. In addition, the person emptying the chamber pot was required by law to call out “Regardez l’eau” (watch out for the water) which later became “gardyloo,” believed to be the genesis of the word “loo.”

London in the 19th century was not that different from present-day India. In a lot of ways, London was much worse. After all, so unbearable was the stench during the Great Stink of 1858 that the Houses of
Parliament, along river Thames, were forced to shut down. It seems even the politicians in both countries were not very different. For it was only when trouble knocked on parliament’s door, that the parliamentarians decided to swing into action. The services of the famed civil engineer Sir Joseph William Bazalgette, Chief Engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, were requisitioned, and he gave London its very own sewer network.

We are now inching closer to our ODF target year of 2019, and yet the Prime Minister’s dream of an ODF-India remains just that. This, despite the fact that we were the earliest known civilisation (Indus Valley) to develop wet toilets and sophisticated sewage systems.

If ancient Indians had mastered the art of close-door defecation in the comfort of their homes, when and how did they venture out of their homes to squat, out in the open? Truth be told, our history books are conspicuously silent when it comes to matters of bowel movements. All we know is that somewhere post the decline of the Harappan Civilisation and the Aryan invasion, the wet toilet was lost. This is not surprising since the Aryans were a nomadic tribe who practised open defecation in the absence of permanent abodes. A permanent home is a prerequisite for a permanent toilet.

What’s interesting to note is that while one invasion brought open defecation into prevalence, another brought toilets back to the forefront. The invaders, this time, were the Mughals. The mention of toilets called “gusalkhana” finds mention in many Mughal texts. However, these toilets were dry latrines—quite inferior to their Harappan counterparts—and needed to be manually cleaned, giving rise to the system of “halalkhors” (manual scavengers).

While the Prime Minister’s dream project is commendable, history predicts its failure. After all, toilet construction or access does not guarantee usage. Further, a study undertaken in October 2017 by the Institute of Development Studies, WaterAid and Praxis, found that several ODF villages seemed to exist only on paper. In Pali village in Rajasthan, the total current usage of toilets was found to be a minuscule 1%.

Following the study, students from the Development Management Institute attempted to study the ground realities in contrast to the government’s claims. The results were disheartening. In different villages in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, usage percentages of toilets were abysmally low, even though these villages had been declared ODF on paper. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, one villager angrily asked, “Peene ke liye to pani hai nahi, dhone ke liye kahan se aayega?” (When there is no water for drinking, from where will we get water for washing?)

Of course, even if there was abundant water, as when the Aryans came to India and settled along the rivers, this would still not guarantee toilet usage. Why? Because the Aryans brought another, deadlier disease with them: caste.

You see, there is one small problem with the construction of pit latrines. They fill up in a few years’ time and have to be emptied, pretty much like the cesspits of 19th-century London. While Londoners had “night-soil men,” Indians had “Dalits.” However, there was one small distinction. While the night-soil men charged a shilling to empty the cesspits, Dalits were paid peanuts. They faced stigmatisation due to untouchability, compounded by years of atrocities.

Given the present scenario, when the government needs to do much to bring about behavioural and attitudinal changes in the context of sanitation—in addition to the construction of toilets—the move to decrease the sanitation budget reinforces what history has predicted. Unless the problem reaches the doors of Parliament, the Bazalgettes of India will simply have to wait.


Updated On : 31st Aug, 2018


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