by Anand Parthasarathy
March 23, 2023: Yesterday, March 22 was World Water Day and this year the focus is on Sanitation – number 6 in the UN’s sustainable development goals. As the UN Water Conference opens in New York today, delegates will hear that collectively they are ‘seriously off track’ in meeting this particular goal.
The Swachh Bharat Mission launched by the government in 2014, in fact anticipated this global concern --the Sustainable Development Goals were approved by the UN General Assembly only a year later. It set the ambitious national target of ‘Toilet for All’ – and while it has not yet been achieved, even after building over 100 million public toilets, we’re getting there.
A well-known piece of graffiti which works equally well on the walls of board room and washroom in the West goes like this: ‘The job isn’t over, till the paperwork is done’.
The use of paper to cleanse oneself after defecation, has perversely been projected as a sign of civilization. It is quite the reverse – and most of Asia, including India, all of the Muslim world and large swaths of Europe have long known and practiced the superior hygiene of cleaning with water before exiting the toilet. Medical science is quite clear: paper is a poor substitute – and opens the user to rashes, hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, and other medical issues. Yet people still swear by ‘paper work’ in almost the whole of North America and in ‘civilized’ enclaves like the UK and their imitators in Australia and New Zealand.
And such is the slavish imitation of superior Anglo-American ways that the western-style toilet cubicle in luxury hotels the world over, on civil aircraft and cruise ships, provides a roll of paper but no water outlet. Incredibly you have only to visit many t 5-star hotels in India, especially belonging to international chains and the same slavish mentality is on display. The world has moved on, but they seem stuck in the last century of little Ole England.
Indian enterprise; The affordable hand- water spray
Here Indian enterprise has created a simple and practical alternative to the old bucket and mug: the hand operated steel water spray gun. It costs less than Rs 300 to buy and install and is now a standard fitment in both Indian and western style toilets in India and across the Middle East.
Some nations which experienced a confluence of western and Asian cultures made the sensible change decades ago: Public toilets all over Singapore, including at all terminals of Changi International Airport, have long featured the spray gun in additional to a paper roll. It is becoming standard all over South East Asia.
And Indian sanitary fittings players apparently, have a healthy export market in hand sprays (they are called bidet sprays or guns in the West), though China is a strong competitor. During Covid, Americans experienced empty supermarket shelves due to logistic problems of suppliers in China. What was the top item they hoarded, when they could find it, ahead of food? Toilet rolls! The experience has persuaded at least some of them – those who have travelled to the East, to install water spray guns.
France’s contribution to toilet hygiene: the Bidet
The French, long known to be more hygiene-aware than some of their European neighbours, invented the Bidet – a separate toilet bowl, placed next to the toilet seat for wet washing – and visitors from India will vouch that every French hotel except the most bargain basement ones, has both toilet and bidet in every room.
Installing two such contraptions, cost money and bloggers seem to suggest that even the French see some sense and economy in installing a bidet spray gun rather than a bidet especially when space is a constraint.
Chalk that one up for an Indian innovation export!
From Japan: the high-tech electronic toilet
If technology is the criterion, no one has poured as much technology into toilets as the Japanese. Around 1985, the first high tech toilet became available from companies like Toto and Panasonic, combining the functions of toilet and bidet – and automating the entire process.
It has evolved considerably since then, even as electronics has advanced and for about a decade now, the high tech or smart toilet (known in Japan and on websites like Amazon as ‘Washlet’) consists of a separate wall panel or an arm alongside the toilet with multiple touch-button controls like wash, rinse, nozzle pressure, wash temperature, front and rear wash, full flush and deodorizer. Sit back -- and the toilet does everything else. You touch nothing.
This is arguably the most efficient and hygienic toilet apparatus available today. And it is widely available in Japan and Korea – in almost all public and hotel toilets and 76% of all homes. The price in Japan ranges from 30,000 to 10,000 Yen (Rs 20,00 – Rs 65,000) depending on the features. Some models --especially those installed in public facilities come with a music channel for obvious reasons. Other features include seat warmers and automatic seat raisers. And recently some advanced versions have extra fixtures to test the urine sample and give a first-cut diagnosis.
The high-tech toilet has obvious attractions for the elderly everywhere – and is now available in India on online commerce sites for around Rs 55,000 – Rs 60,000. All it requires is plumbing for a hot and cold water connection and an electric point.
The Japanese are proud of their contribution to toilet technology; in fact some years ago Toto, set up 10 rooms in Tokyo Narita airport where passengers could check out their latest range of smart commodes for free. Their foreign sales are aid to have jumped as foreign travellers got hooked and ordered one for their home.
Tech for water conservation
Beyond high-tech toilets, Japan has also innovated to conserve water in the washroom.
In many public toilets, you will see a wash basin (and often a soap dispenser) integrated with the top of the toilet tank. That way the used water (often called ‘grey water’) when you wash hands after using the toilet, goes into the toilet cistern and reduces the dependence on piped water for flushing…an eminently sensible idea that India could usefully embrace. Maybe as part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
Why not? We gave the world, handheld water sprays. We can surely take a sensible idea like this?
On World Water Day, 2023, a bit of give and take?
For images pertinent to this article please see Image of the Day
This story appeared yesterday in Swarajyamag