Toilets in India: Now A Seat of Respect

“Hey, what’s that?” I asked, rubber necking as our taxi sped down the road. I had seen a row of portable toilets with a big, bold sign on each door.

“Did that say Izzat Ghar?” My companion shrugged blankly.

“Izzat Ghar means House of Honour. For a toilet? Huh!” I was puzzled.

The toilet in India is the last place to be associated with high concepts like honour and respect. Culturally, it’s dirty, a necessary evil to be tolerated, not indulged. So it is that toilets in Indian homes tend to be solely functional, frugal in space. Unlike the West, where the toilet can be a refuge or a sanctuary, it is purely an in-and-out affair in India. Do your business and get out.

And then it dawned on me. This is the Government of India’s new take on its public health campaign to end open defecation.

At the turn of the 21st century, a good 55% of Indians were still doing their business in the open: in the fields, by the roadside, at any public spot, really. By 2016, that has come down to 39%. It’s an improvement, but it’s still a big problem if 4 out of 10 Indians are relieving themselves in public.

Traditionally, the approach has been to build toilets. Build them and they will come has been the idea. Well, millions of latrines built by the UN, WHO, and many other well-meaning public bodies go unused; often, the newly enclosed space gets used for storage of valuable possessions.

This time seems different. In the framing of toilets as honourable places, there’s a deep understanding of Indian culture, what Indians care about, and how to tie this to increased toilet use. As a marketer, and behaviour science follower I like that the campaign is using a real human insight to drive behaviour change. Only by understanding what motivates people as people can you expect to change their behaviour.

First the insight. Honour runs strong as a social identity. It’s why Indians will go to great lengths to demonstrate their deep wells of respectability. Family lineage is emphasized when arranging marriages. High academic marks reflect not only on the child’s intellect but on the whole family. How one conducts oneself in the world is always linked back to how respectable one is and one’s family heritage. In more recent times, material goods and ostentatious spending have become new sources of social standing.

Calling the toilets as places of honour and respectability is clever. Going to the physical toilet structure means I am going to an honourable, and hence, desirable place. To be seen using the toilet is to be associated with good values, where my social status can be enhanced.

Till now, toilets were seen as undesirable places – dark, enclosed, stale – and could never compare to the freedom of wide, open spaces. With this new campaign, the government has reframed toilets to be a place that adds social value. It’s no longer about the functional benefits of a toilet – the privacy it provides (nobody cared about this to start with), hygiene (not seen as a problem), and health (nobody believed toilets have anything to do with it). Instead, toilets are now sources of good, respectability-enhancing social identity.

I think this approach to making toilets desirable will work. I had written about the government’s campaign to end open defecation before as well – in that case, I talked about the concept of public shaming and desire to identify with the right “in-group”. They’re serious about a behavioural science-based approach to tackling tough public health problems.

I’m rooting for this campaign to work; I think it will. At minimum, it’s refreshing to see such an innovative approach to social change.


About Archana

I'm Indian and Canadian, and many other countries in between. I read comics every morning and believe the world could do with slowing down.
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