On Sunday, May 28 2017, Ravinder Kumar, an e-rickshaw driver, was beaten to death near G.T.B Nagar metro station. Two youths and their friends carried out this fatal beating. Kumar;s only crime? He had requested the two youths in question to not urinate in public.

If you are new to the city of Delhi you must prepare yourself for the sight of men urinating in public. Men can be seen urinating on walls, on buildings, near bushes, at the edge of a road and even metro stations. It is such a common practice that most people do not even bat an eyelid at such a sight anymore. The mindset that allows for men to urinate wherever they please contributes to the stinking and filthy public spaces that we are used to seeing. Furthermore, the utter disregard for the upkeep of public spaces evidences our general apathy for the world around us. In fact, nobody seems to care to the point where they think it’s okay or even justified to beat somebody up, someone who asks them not to pee in public, until they are dead.

The same mindset also appears to be prevalent when it comes to poop. Indians are not only comfortable urinating in public but also pooping in public. Unlike public urination, there is data available on the issue of open defecation and the numbers tell a troubling story.

India has the largest number of people defecating in the open. As of 2014, India accounts for 60% of the world’s open defecation. According to the Swachhta Status Report, open defecation is practiced by 65% of the population, in rural areas. Professor Mitul Baruah, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University states that “Building toilets is expensive and this partly explains the lack of toilets in rural India. People cannot afford them.”.

While the number of people who don’t have access to toilets in urban India stands at 41 million, Professor Baruah attributes this number to poverty. “Most poverty-stricken people live in areas that are temporary.”. Therefore, building toilets may be their last concern.

In comparison to its neighbours, India is faring poorly. 34.3% of Pakistan’s rural population defecates in the open, while the statistic stands at only 5% for Bangladesh’s rural population (data taken from r.i.c.e). This data is indicative of a deeper issue. The problem of open defecation appears to be stubbornly entrenched in Indian society.

The reasons for this problem must be understood before the government takes gargantuan steps such as building another 35 crore toilets. If having funds to build toilets were enough, then economically poorer countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda would face this problem a lot more than India, which, according to statistics is not the case. The difficulty in eradicating open defecation stems from logistical, sociological and behavioural reasons.

“Along with toilets, needs to come water.” says Professor Baruah. “Toilets built lack the necessary infrastructure. For toilets, you need water supply. How can you expect people to use a toilet that has no water supply?”. Lack of water supply will push people to revert to their old ways of defecation, that is, in the open. It is because there is a lack of piped water supply especially in rural areas, people use the toilets constructed for them, for other purposes. Speaking of his travels across many parts of rural India, Professor Baruah expresses that, “I have seen people use toilets for storing grains and other materials.” This leads one to believe that building these toilets then becomes moot. It is not only a waste of funds but also of time and space.

Sociological factors have a great part to play in this issue as well. “Open defecation is very much a part of peoples’ cultures.” says Professor Barauh and goes on to explain that “in many places kids grow up seeing their families and people going to fields together in the mornings. Early on in your life you get enrolled in this practice.” It becomes clear then that it is a set behavioural pattern that needs to be understood and changed.

Open defecation may also prove to be a community act and this is because “every morning people walk to fields together and get the space to talk, converse and share things.”. Defecating in the open is also convenient especially with family sizes mostly being large in rural India and one small toilet may not be sufficient for the same.

According to Professor Quaiser, Head of the Sociology Department at Jamia Millia Islamia University “Throughout history, people have had differential patterns of defecation and that has nothing to do with the existence of lavatories.” In other words, building toilets is not enough. Professor Baurah also spoke about the need for massive awareness drives that should be undertaken by State actors as well as non-governmental organisations. He also added that these campaigns should be aimed especially at men. This is because “in most of rural India, men are the decision makers in the family and they are the ones who need toilets the least.”

The issues of public urination and open defecation are two sides of the same coin. Both issues require a major shift in the mindset of the government and the masses that it administrates. Given this need for a mindset change, will change only occur by understanding the various factors at play? Or will nothing change, no matter how many toilets this government may build?