Tata-Dhan Academy: PDM

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Programme in Development Management

The World Toilet Tour: A Review of “The Big Necessity”

Author: Rose George | 304 pages, Rs. 339 | Metropolitan Books | ISBN: 978-0805082715

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters is a picturesque “world toilet tour,” or so I call it. At just over 300 pages, the book enlightens the reader with various facts about the yellowish-brown matter that some civilizations flush (and some do not) in the morning and several times during the day. The book, authored by Rose George, a young British writer, talks about shit—literally—and also about sewers and sanitation: the 3-Ss. Nonetheless, the philosophy goes beyond the 3-Ss.


The book makes it clear that from Mumbai to Milan to Manhattan to Moscow, there are serious problems of sanitation. Villagers in China and India deposit huge loads of night soil every year around their farms and houses, and residents of New York City and London become infuriated when the sewers overflow after half-an-inch of rainfall. Approximately, 2.6 billion people in the world have no access to sanitation; by an estimate, each of them ingests 10 grams of excrement every day, exposing themselves to 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasites, and 100 worm eggs. This happens despite evidence that an investment of Rs 45 on sanitation results in over Rs 300 worth of economic productivity and that providing access to proper sanitation can add 20 years of life to an individual.

“Unmentionables,” a clever word to replace the 3-Ss, appears early in the introductory chapter, which is stuffed with facts, figures, and examples about the unmentionables, from across continents, throughout history, and even through the development of language. It even traces where people practice the unmentionable, sharing insights such as that only 60 years ago, open defecation was commonplace in Japan—the country that today has “intelligent” modern toilets installed in homes throughout the country.

But despite the advances in toilet designs, proper sanitation is still inaccessible to many, especially those in the developing world. Does the number of people without sanitation stand firm at 2.6 billion or is it growing? It is very unwelcoming that the Millennium Development Goals announced by United Nations Development Program does not include the direct mention of the issue of sanitation (Editor’s note: The third target of Goal 7, Ensure Environmental Sustainability, is to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. The point here is that the problem is so severe that one wonders why it is not a separate goal.) but perhaps this is directly in response to the taboo nature of the topic, which even leads to lower volunteerism towards improving sanitation.

George’s book also highlights several successes, for example the Sulabh Sauchalaya founded by a vibrant upper-caste rebel, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak who was disturbed by the inhumane treatment of a particular caste in India which was supposed to have been created to clean the excrement of others. Today, he continues on his mission to provide public toilets wherever needed. His story is one of several which describe the innovations that have developed around the world to tackle the problem of human waste disposal, ranging from developing fertilizers to generating fuel. To understand the diverse innovations, George also spends some time elaborating on the methods used in different countries for treating human waste.

Ultimately, a reader would feel satisfied and kindled after reading the Big Necessity. The book may not be recommended for those who are uncomfortable imagining the 3-Ss, but even for such readers, the humor installed at various points can keep the discomfort at bay. The language is easy to follow, the chapters tactfully address the taboo, and thoughtful pictures are interspersed throughout the book.

The worst thing about the book, which can prove to be the best thing too, is that it lacks a single central idea. As such, the chapters can be read independently of each other, and when put together, they can give the reader a diverse picture of managing human waste around the world. There may also be some bias in the book. In the chapter “Open Defecation-Free India,” the tone of appreciation for the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) and the tone of critique for the Total Sanitation Campaign (TCS) seems unjustified; perhaps George liked one approach over the other, but they both bear their share of problems. TCS has been found to not be very effective and CLTS has been questioned on ethical grounds of treating the subjects with insufficient dignity.

The book does not offer any recommendations, but it leaves the reader with information to be able to look at sanitation issues from a cross-cultural perspective with the hope of learning and building upon these experiences. It is strongly recommended for those who are interested in following the likes of Dr. Pathak of Sulabh and Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas in addressing the issue of sanitation.

Kunj Bihari Pratap, PDM 10

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Filed under: PDM 10, Spectrum,

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