What do we mean by ‘improving sanitation’?

WaterAid/Adam Ferguson

Good sanitation in communities has a lot of benefits like better health, better economy, and physical safety for women. But looking at toilets in history, “improving sanitation” has come to mean a lot more than just preventing the spread of disease. When we talk about sanitation, we are talking about a whole complex network of political relationships and social anxieties.

Everybody shits. It is truly a human universal, like breathing, drinking water, and eating. But unlike other universals, people tend to find shitting repulsive. According to some scholars, being disgusted at human shit is universal. For some scholars, this disgust is biologically hardwired into us, an evolutionary adaptation to avoid dangerous and pathogenic substances (Case, Repacholi, and Stevenson 2006; Curtis, de Barra, and Aunger 2011; Darwin 1965; Fessler and Navarrete 2003; Prokop, Usak, and Fančovičová 2010). Other scholars contest that repulsion towards shit is a product of cultural and historical context (Cohen and Johnson 2004; Douglas 2002; Dumont 1981; Miller 1998; Van der Geest 1998). The answer—like so many debates—probably lies somewhere in between, a mixture of biological hardwiring and cultural context.

But in discussing biological and cultural underpinnings of shit and our relationship with it, we cannot forget that dealing with shit is also political: to manage shit is to manage bodies, and to manage bodies is to manage people.

In 1842 in England, Edwin Chadwick, a public health reformer, published ‘Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’. This document examined the environment and health of the poor. But underpinning discussions of foul odors and fouler water, he tied health, morality, and psychological degradation to a damaged environment (Black and Fawcett 2008: 21). Beyond an interest in spreading disease, public hygiene was entwined with morality; to be clean was to be moral, and morality was understood as acting, thinking, looking and smelling like the middle class. By managing their cleanliness, Chadwick believed he could manage the threat of uprising of the poor.

In the smoldering aftermath of India’s First War for Independence in 1857, similar sensibilities informed the reconstruction of Delhi. Before 1857, Delhi had been relatively integrated; the British and the Indians lived close to each other. When Delhi was reconstructed in the 1860s, the planning of the physical infrastructure was informed both by fear of cholera and their fear of rebellion: the British and the Indians were more physically divided than they had been. “Sanitation” was not merely a health measure, but a measure to separate themselves from the Indians who they viewed as frightening and dangerous.

Beyond middle-class anxiety about the threat of the lower classes, sanitation and cleanliness is also deeply entwined with notions of aesthetics, order, and modernity. In 1803, Lord Wellsley’s street policies related to Calcutta illustrate this:

In those quarters of the town occupied principally by the native inhabitants, the houses have been built without order or regularity, and the streets and lanes have been formed without attention to the health, convenience or safety of the inhabitants. … The appearance and beauty of the town are inseparably connected with the health, safety and convenience of the inhabitants, and every improvement … will tend to ameliorate the climate and to promote and secure … a just and salutary system of police. (qtd. in Chakrabarty 1992)

Wellsley talked about health, but what really concerned him was order and aesthetics.

This same broadness and flexibility of meaning in relation to “cleanliness” continues today. In the current Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission, Swachh Bharat has addressed the need for solid and liquid waste management, public urination, open defecation, black money, yoga, personal cleanliness, health, and preservation of culture. Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu said that even the demonetisation scheme was part of making a Swachh Bharat.

So when we are talking about cleanliness, what exactly are we talking about? And why are we talking about it? Is it about health? Safety? Aesthetics? Cleanliness? What are the values that are being pushed in the name of “cleanliness”? As we move towards achieving a “Swachh Bharat”, we need to understand what it is that we are moving towards.


Case, Trevor I., Betty M. Repacholi, and Richard J. Stevenson. 2006. “My Baby Doesn’t Smell as Bad as Yours: The Plasticity of Disgust.” Evolution and Human Behavior 27 (5): 357–65.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. “Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze.” Economic and Political Weekly, 541–47.

Cohen, William A., and Ryan Johnson. 2004. Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Curtis, Valerie, Mícheál de Barra, and Robert Aunger. 2011. “Disgust as an Adaptive System for Disease Avoidance Behaviour.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366 (1563): 389–401.

Darwin, Charles. 1965. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Vol. 526. Chicago: University of Chicago press. https://books.google.com/books?

Douglas, Mary. 2002. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London ; New York: Routledge.

Dumont, Louis. 1981. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. 2 edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Fessler, Daniel MT, and C. David Navarrete. 2003. “Domain-Specific Variation in Disgust Sensitivity across the Menstrual Cycle.” Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (6): 406–17.

Miller, William Ian. 1998. The Anatomy of Disgust. Harvard University Press.

Prokop, Pavol, Muhammet Usak, and Jana Fančovičová. 2010. “Risk of Parasite Transmission Influences Perceived Vulnerability to Disease and Perceived Danger of Disease-Relevant Animals.” Behavioural Processes 85 (1): 52–57.

Van der Geest, Sjaak. 1998. “Akan Shit: Getting Rid of Dirt in Ghana.” Anthropology Today, 8–12.

Jen Barr is A PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology at Emory University who volunteered for WaterAid India’s policy team. She Tweets as @jenniferabarr

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