Spiti Valley is a rural and dry mountain region located in the Indian Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. Being a cold desert valley, it receives very less rainfall in the summers which is not enough for the crops to thrive. Dependence on water is therefore exclusively centered around glaciers whose water collect in streams traditionally called ‘tokpos’ and rivulets called ‘yuras.’ Local communities thrive next to the tokpos from where water is diverted into the fields through yuras. The unfortunate dual existence of agriculture and scanty rainfall compels the farmers to engage in a tedious task of irrigating the fields using glacial water. Additionally, Spiti also faces water shortage in winters, due to which people depend on pipelines (most of the villages lack it) and hand pumps to extract water for daily use. The hand pumps also have predictable chances of freezing and becoming unusable due to sub-zero temperatures. The problem of water-scarcity is however eased by the existence of dry toilets which do not need input of water like modern pour flush toilets, also producing natural manure for the fields.
A deeper look into the traditional agricultural practices of Spiti shows how the local knowledge pertaining personal sphere of sanitation holds symbolic power to question not only the design of modern sanitation systems but also the paradox of development and modernity that cities are clothed with. What is progress if whatever new infrastructural advancements we are coming up with are detached from the ecology of the area it is being used in? Is it even progress if it’s happening at the cost of the deterioration of nature’s resources? We have been using dry toilets for generations in these cold Himalayas. It is also called composting toilets and are the ancient versions of modern eco-san toilets. It has two levels, a toilet on the top and a composting unit underneath. After using the toilet, we shovel a bit of dirt (mostly ashes, hay or dry dung) into the composting unit, through a hole to facilitate decomposition by microorganisms. The dirt also covers the waste and blocks the foul smell. Furthermore, these toilets do not need water.
At the end of every year, we clean the composting unit of every household with the help of our neighbours, friends and relatives. It is a communal affair and the waste that has decomposed is usually dry. The naturally formed manure is put to use in the fields before the ploughing season. In Spiti, therefore, there is no concept of ‘waste.’ The symbiotic relationship between the toilet design systems in Spiti and the fragile ecosystem facilitates growth of healthy crops and reduces the brunt of water crisis in the region. The use of dry toilets is therefore an eco-sensitive wisdom born out of the geographical realities of this cold desert and is especially useful in the winters when water freezes. However, an influx of tourists and the effect of modernity is not only hierarchizing sanitation design systems but is also disrupting indigenous knowledge and the temporal existence of infrastructure when it comes to construction of toilets.
Symbolism of Toilet Design
Sanitation, although a very personal matter, is also very political. It is impacted by class, caste and geographical privileges that one is born with. Living in a society marked by caste, class and gender differences, our everyday objects and infrastructures are filled with symbolic meanings which have political connotations. Most of the semiotics revolving around these infrastructures are shaped by the overarching burden of development that we’re all expected to carry.
The brunt of modernity is borne heavily by the marginalized communities who are socially, intellectually and financially less privileged. In the dry toilets of Spiti, there is an understanding of where one’s waste is going; one sees the waste and later when decomposed to form manure, materially engages with it. The ‘user’ and the ‘cleaner’ is the same person here. With modernity however, progress of sanitation design systems is measured by how well you can invisibilize the waste. There is no awareness of what trajectory one’s waste takes. In pour flush toilets, waste is flushed, it goes into sewers and ceases to exist visibly for those using it. The waste is left in the sewers and septic tanks to be manually engaged by those who are forced by their caste status to do so. Intentionally or unintentionally, modern toilets and sanitation design systems work efficiently only to strengthen the existing inequalities in society and stigmatize dirt, caste status and sanitation work. For the outsiders, these dry toilets are symbolic of the ‘backwardness’ of the region.
These toilets are looked down upon and therefore become an indicator of the scale of development one has afforded to reach. When I took one of my friends to visit Spiti to meet my family, the first thing my parents said on the phone was, “We don’t have a good toilet. Will she be able to manage with our traditional toilet”? With the oppressive discourse of so-called ‘development’ and the hierarchization of toilet design systems, the traditional toilets immediately become instruments that trigger shame and remind Spitians of their class and their ‘backwardness.’ It compels Spitians to be apologetic that they cannot keep pace with the race of modernity.
Tourism and Its Impact On Toilet Design
In recent years, Spiti has become a famous tourist hotspot. To service the influx of tourists, towns like Kaza have built many restaurants and hotels that are attached with modern pour-flush toilets and bathrooms. To cater to the preference of modernity and of the tourists, owners have constructed borewells to extract groundwater. With scarce rainfall, recharging the groundwater seems like a phenomenon that will take forever. Exhaustion of groundwater worsens the problem of water scarcity during the winters when tourists cease to visit. With tourists visiting and the influence of modern infrastructures, Spitians in the towns have moved away from their eco-sensitive traditional knowledge regarding construction of toilets. The indigenous knowledge is losing value in the face of the larger discourse around development and a drive to ‘modernize.’
In this era where development is seen as a linear phenomenon, rather than context-dependent, the dry toilets of Spiti symbolize how ‘backward’ or ‘developed’ one is. The toilets, therefore, become symbolic of one’s class and the scale of development one has reached in terms of sanitation. The visibility of the waste through the hole of the dry toilet is considered unclean. Dry toilets of Spiti are therefore, not only symbolic of how the ‘personal’ is linked to and influenced by the larger political discourse around development but also how infrastructures or sanitation design systems come to acquire and be trapped within social values of power, shame and backwardness.
First published by Himkatha – Spring 2021 issue
For a more detailed analysis, pl. read Toilet Design in Spiti Valley by the same author