The Indian Elite Has a Toilet Problem it Doesn’t Want to See

With Joyeeta Dey. This article was published by The Wire on 2 December 2015.

Kolkata: ‘When it’s urgent, I’ll tell boudi that I need to go the bathroom’, explains Mithu as we sit chatting on the rickety bench by her home. ‘She’ll say to me, “Go, there’s no problem,” but I feel shy.’

Having begun work as a live-in ‘maid’ at the age of eight, Mithu made the transition to day-time work after her marriage, commuting into Kolkata from the village in South 24 Parganas where she lives with her family. She is now in her early fifties and works in six different households a day, spending an hour or so cleaning in each one.

The little time Mithu spends in each house day-to-day may explain why her employers have not raised the issue of toilet access, undeniably still a taboo topic in India. Previously, when living with employers, Mithu shared a separate toilet with other domestic staff; but now she is less sure which toilet she can use at work (if at all) and must ask permission each time she needs to go – something which she feels uncomfortable about despite her considerable experience negotiating with employers.

Nevertheless, in ‘urgent’ situations Mithu musters the courage to ask her employers if she can use the toilet: many others lack the confidence and bargaining power to do so. Furthermore, not all employers are as obliging as Mithu’s, and instances of domestic workers being refused access to the toilet, even when they ask, are not unheard of. Rita, the owner of a placement agency in south Kolkata reveals that employers sometimes snap at their domestic workers, saying, ‘We don’t have a toilet. Why didn’t you go at home?’ If they are allowed, she says, they are usually expected to use the separate ‘servants’ toilet’, which is outside the building and often in a poor condition. ‘My girls come to me and say, “We just can’t go there, it’s filthy”,’ explains Rita.

Dying to go

For women unable to access toilets at work, finding somewhere to relieve themselves throughout the day can be a tricky and time-consuming business – especially if they also have to travel long distances to get to work. Commuter trains stations outside Kolkata often do not have toilets at all; and busy, central stations like Dhakuria and Bagha Jatin tend to cater only for men. Where women’s toilets do exist in train stations and around the city, they are often highly unsanitary or pay-per-use (sometimes both). There is a lack of official data on the number of public toilets in Kolkata but it is estimated that there are approximately 200 toilets in the city (170 run by the government and 30 run by a private organisation).

As a result, many women simply stop by the road or in a field, as Mithu used to do; while others admit to going ‘in secret’ in their employers’ houses. ‘Sometimes when I’m washing clothes, I just keep the door shut and do what I need to do,’ says Malati, a domestic worker from Canning, South 24 Parganas. ‘What else can I do?’ Likewise, for Archana – also from South 24 Parganas – traipsing back and forth to the servants’ toilet is unnecessarily tiring and time-consuming. ‘Why should I have to?’ she protests.

Going to the toilet out in the open entails safety risks for women; but, equally, stealing a moment while washing their employers’ clothes can mean being caught and fired. Malati and Archana have heard about employers telling women ‘not to come back’ after having realised what they were doing behind a closed door.

For those unable or unwilling to take such risks, going to work in the city simply means not being able to access a toilet all day – something which is not only extremely uncomfortable (particularly so for women who are pregnant or menstruating), but has been linked with the development of urinary tract infections.

Apart from these difficulties, Mithu believes that the situation has in others ways improved for domestic workers in Kolkata. She explains how earlier employers would throw the plates and cups she would use under the stairs or on the floor – ‘in dirty places’ – but now keep them together with their own. She is also given better utensils, ‘not broken ones like before.’

The shift away from live-in forms of domestic service has arguably brought increased autonomy and bargaining power for many domestic workers; and, in some cases, may have also contributed to better treatment by employers who are increasingly aware of the fragile nature of the employment relationship. As demonstrated by the recent outrage over BookmyBai.com (a website designed to allow employers to select domestic workers based on categories such as religion and region of origin and which has been accused of facilitating discrimination, particularly towards Muslim workers) there has also been increased consciousness in India and around the world about the treatment and working conditions of those we employ to clean our homes, cook our food and look after our loved ones.

Yet much like how in Europe and the United States immigrant women and women of colour are often understood to be ‘suited’ to paid domestic work, overlooking the immigration policies and structural inequalities that limit their options for employment, domestic work in India remains both task- and caste-driven. The extent to which employer relations with domestic workers continue to be flavoured by caste is particularly evident when considering the bathroom cleaner or ‘sweeper’ who is, as Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum point out, ‘almost always exclusively that, and always belongs to the lowest castes.’

A chipped plate of her own

Domestic workers’ everyday experiences of exclusion and indignity likewise expose the inconsistency of West Bengal’s reputation as a progressive and ‘post-caste’ society. Mithu is not only still expected to use separate utensils for eating and drinking in the houses where she works, but also only asks to use the toilet ‘when it’s urgent’ and feels embarrassed doing so, her sense of shame indicating that such requests are ‘inappropriate’ and best avoided. Likewise, Durga – a domestic worker from the Canning area – describes how she is frequently scolded for touching things around the house. ‘They tell me to wash my hands constantly and say, “Don’t touch this. Don’t touch that”’ – suggesting that the notion of the ‘polluted/polluting’ domestic worker continues to hold relevance for upper and middle-class Bengalis, even though the prohibition of caste discrimination has made it socially unacceptable to admit it.

Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn.

Rita sympathises with her clients when they complain to her about domestic workers misusing toilets in their homes. ‘When some of the girls come here too, they don’t flush. I walk in and have to see it!’ she says, exasperated. Like many of her clients, Rita believes these problems are the result of women’s lack of awareness about modern hygiene and the functioning of toilets; and, in a way, she is right. There is a learning process involved with toilet use. After all, many toilets in upper- and middle-class homes, particularly those found in modern apartment buildings, have been built in the ‘western’ style and will be at first unfamiliar to people commuting from rural areas or living in less-affluent areas. This is why Rita urges clients to ‘teach’ their domestic employees what to do.

An excuse that doesn’t wash

Yet, the fact that in most cases Rita ends up agreeing to ‘discontinue’ workers at the request of employers who are reluctant to demonstrate how to use the toilet reveals something more significant about the ways in which employers view domestic workers and their labour. Given that it is not uncommon to find domestic workers operating a wide range of technology and machinery (water filters, washing machines, microwaves), employer reluctance cannot be explained by claims that their instruction would be wasted, that domestic workers are ‘uneducable’. Rather, it points to a more insidious belief among employers that domestic workers are not only unaware of hygiene but are themselves ‘unhygienic’.

‘We pour from the same bottle but use separate glasses,’ says Mithu, illustrating how, despite improvements in working conditions, employers maintain physical and ritual distance from domestic workers who they consider to be ‘unclean’. Subsequently, while women like Mithu are at once entrusted with cleaning their employer’s homes, cooking their food, and caring for their children, they are, in Ghatak’s words, simultaneously ‘not deemed hygienic enough to use their toilets or eat off their plates’. Such experiences of exclusion and indignity tend to be missed in studies that use simplistic indicators to determine the prevalence of untouchability, such as whether a person would allow a member of the Schedules Castes to enter their kitchen.

The hygienist discourse is not only inconsistent and contradictory; it is also based on an inaccurate and demeaning characterisation of domestic workers which both overlooks and perpetuates the sub-standard conditions under which they toil. If hygiene is the primary concern for employers, then why do so few invest in decent cleaning equipment and protective clothing for their ‘maids’? Surely limiting domestic workers’ access to the bathroom (where there may be soap and running water) also makes little sense if the aim is to promote health and prevent disease in the home. Needless to say, the situation might be considerably different if the upper and middle classes had to clean their own floors and toilets. Indeed, such work might even cease to be seen as ‘dirty’ and ‘polluting’ and instead be treated with the respect it deserves.

Considering the long history of caste-based discrimination affecting domestic workers in India, and the contemporary forms of exclusion and indignity experienced by Mithu and others, it is not enough for employers to say ‘we have a separate toilet’ or ‘we don’t refuse them when they ask’. If we are to break the taboo around toilet-use and challenge untouchability in all its forms, we must go further by sharing utensils and offering the use of our toilets even when they do not ask – preferably the same ones we use.

Rita’s name and the names of domestic workers have been changed to protect their identities.

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