The shocking incident of a sexagenarian woman being mauled to death by a pack of 50-odd stray dogs in Thiruvananthapuram has renewed the debate on the stray dog menace. As expected, the incident is widely perceived to be an outcome of the failures of the administrative and civic systems that have failed to curb the menace. And the blame game has already begun.
Those responsible to tackle the menace are the culprits in the incident in question. However, there is also an equally important issue which is downplayed amid the heated and morally outrageous arguments over "to cull or not to cull the killer strays".
The victim in the latest incident, a 65-year-old-woman near Pulluvila beach in Thiruvananthapuram, was mauled by the dogs when she went out to answer the call of the nature.
The fact is that the woman's family does not have a toilet in their household. A woman in her neighborhood who was eyewitness to the incident in a Manorama News report said that many families in the neighborhood do not have toilet in their residential premises. Now, remember the shower of trolls on social media triggered by the central government's ad campaign in which actor Vidya Balan urged people to build toilets.
The Malayalam version of the ad, obviously set in a north Indian context, was written off as unfit and unnecessary for Kerala audience by cyber warriors who believe open defecation is a thing of the past in the state. The trolls even took a political tone with some asking PM Modi to show it to the people of Gujarat, his home state, where owning a toilet is still a luxury for many.
The Pulluvila incident certainly defies such claims and challenges our notions about the state's achievements vis-a-vis cleanliness and sanitation. Kerala, of course, tops the list of human development indices in a number of aspects and the level of awareness among people on hygiene is high compared to many other states.
But one cannot turn a blind eye towards the bitter fact that there are many households still lacking proper sanitation facilities. Open defecation is still common in several coastal, tribal and rural areas despite the constant push for construction of toilets. The case is not different in urban centers where there are not adequate number of public toilets, nor enough awareness drive among the people, mostly destitutes and migrants.
Fortunately, the government accepts the situation as a fact and is ready to change it. The Kerala government is pushing for a status of open defecation-free (ODF) state by November 1 and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that their aim is to construct two lakh odd toilets in households of the state.
The reasons for the lack of toilets could be many, including lack of funds and awareness and personal preferences. There are studies that the habit of defecating in open air is not always because of a lack of toilets. It is also attributed to certain social reasons, personal reasons and behavioral patterns.
There are stories like the one about a group of Rajasthani women who refused the offer to build them a toilet because they preferred the early morning sessions which they enjoyed as the only occasion to go out and interact with each other. But it seems to be inappropriate to draw a parallel between such culture-specific cases and the families in places like Perunthura without a toilet. Preferences could be one reason, but the lack of funds could have been the primary reason for the families to teach themselves to be happy with the sprawling beaches to relieve themselves.
Be it the lack of funds or awareness, the local body administrators and officials, who are in the lowest rung of power circle and in touch with the people, cannot shirk their responsibility on the issue. Even if a family does not approach the authorities seeking aid to build basic infra structure like toilet, the authorities and the people's representatives have a moral responsibility to reach out to the people and make them aware of the need for it.
If a family in a mainstream cluster is left without toilet even at this point of time, it clearly means that there was a lack of communication between the authorities and the family. Soon after the incident, the panchayat authorities have reportedly blamed the rules that stop people from killing stray dogs.
The people's moral outrage and emotional response to the sad and shocking incident is totally understandable. But the authorities should also introspect why the poor old woman had to go out at night to relieve herself, only to fall prey to the stray dogs.
(The views expressed are personal)