Juliet Rowan has just returned from India on an Asia New Zealand Foundation media trip. She writes about her fifth day in India - a visit to a museum she will never forget.

The day of our visit to India's Museum of Toilets has arrived.

Of all the items on the itinerary of our trip, this one has aroused the greatest curiosity among our group of Kiwi journos.

The puns are rolling in thick and fast on the journey out to the museum but toilets, it turns out, are a serious business in India.

The museum is run by Sulabh International, a nongovernmental organisation dedicated to bringing toilets to the half of India's 1.3 billion people who live without proper sanitation.

The new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set an ambitious target of ensuring everyone in India has access to a toilet by 2019, requiring the installation of at least 120 million more toilets in houses nationwide.

Bringing sanitation to the country's poor is a mission that stretches back to Mahatma Gandhi, who championed the rights of Hindu's untouchable caste. The untouchables or dalits were traditionally tasked with clearing away human waste in a practice known as manual scavenging, which has been abolished in many areas but still endures.

India's Museum of Toilets director Bageshwar Jha explains the history of toilets back to 2500BC. Photo/Juliet Rowan
India's Museum of Toilets director Bageshwar Jha explains the history of toilets back to 2500BC. Photo/Juliet Rowan

Sulabh International works to end manual scavenging and Gandhi's saying "cleanliness is next to godliness" adorns the walls of the organisation's headquarters on the outskirts of Delhi.

Modi has also coined a sanitation mantra, "Toilet first, temple later", and Sulabh officials tell us the prime minister's toilet mission is gaining traction.

Sulabh is one of India's largest NGOs and has already built 1.3 million household toilets and 8500 public toilets across India. They include the world's largest toilet complex at a popular pilgrimage site, Pandharpur, which has more than 1400 toilets and is a great source of pride for the organisation's founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak.

Dr Pathak claims to have liberated millions of people from a life of manual scavenging in the 40 years since he founded Sulabh and appears to have nutured a cult-like following around himself.

Thanks to the New Zealand High Commission in Delhi, we are granted an audience with Dr Pathak, who wears gold-framed glasses and carries the latest smartphone in a blingy case. Sulabh brochures call him the ''soldier of sanitation'' and compare him to Gandhi.

After telling us we will begin our visit with a prayer, Dr Pathak leads us into a hall where we are adorned with flowers and shawls, and invited onstage to face a crowd of women in saris.

There is a group in blue who we are told are former manual scavengers freed by Dr Pathak from a life of collecting human waste from people's homes and carrying it on their heads.

The women are lined up in rows and sing songs while television cameras roll and photographers capture the occasion.

It is a surreal experience as we stand with hands clasped in prayer pose for the 20-minute ritual, but sobering as we learn the facts about India's lack of sanitation.

We hear that more people in India have mobile phones than access to toilets, and at least 50 per cent of the population is forced to defecate in the open.

Many have been doing so for a lifetime, a practice Sulabh senior vice president Dr Lalit Kumar says can then make them resistant or fearful of using proper toilets.

Open defecation has been identified as a cause of 50 diseases and manual scavenging carries with it the same health risks, while World Bank and United Nations studies show children without access to sanitation fail to develop properly.

"It impacts on the whole economy if you don't have these facilities," Dr Kumar says. "One dollar spent on sanitation gives you $5 of economic returns."

Says Dr Pathak: "The toilet is a tool for social change."

The Indian Government has employed a Bollywood actress to act as a sanitation ambassador to reach the masses through television and radio advertising, as only 72 per cent of the population is literate.

Lack of toilets is a major issue for women, who risk sexual attack while going in the open, particularly at night.

We are told women facing arranged marriages will often ask if there is a toilet in a potential husband's house and if not, the woman will refuse the arrangement.

Other women have walked out of marriages, risking ostracisation by their families, when a toilet is promised but not delivered.

Access to sanitary products is another issue Sulabh is tackling. As well as visiting a school at the headquarters where children learn practical skills such as typing, computer programmes and sewing, we are shown a facility where sanitary pads are manufactured for sale at a nominal price to school girls.

Sulabh trains children to teach other children about menstruation to counter the fact that the subject is taboo in India. We hear that 90 per cent of girls will get their first period without knowing what is happening.

Lack of water also complicates the toilet situation in India, but at Sulabh, we see low-cost solutions to the problem. We are given demonstrations of how human waste can be distilled or dried into fertiliser, mineral-rich water and biogas. Sulabh has constructed 190 biogas plants in India that are powered by human faeces.

We are also shown how faeces, when left to dry for long periods, becomes odourless and hard as concrete. We see a sculpture made of dried poo and are asked to throw balls of the material into the ground to demonstrate its strength.

Feeling a little nauseated at this point, we go inside the Museum of Toilets, which houses a quirky collection of toilets through the ages, dating from 2500BC.

There is a picture of New Zealand's Hundertwasser toilet in Northland on the wall, and the humourous museum director Bageshwar Jha recites with gusto his variation of the Kiwi saying, "If it's yellow, let it mello, if it's brown, flush it down."

He also wants to know about traditional Maori toilets and asks New Zealanders to contact him with information.

The oddball experience ends with us sitting in a cavernous reception room watching a video in English and Hindi of a song composed by Dr Pathak. Bollywood actors perform the song, which covers the gambit of the subject of sanitation, while we are offered sandwiches and glasses of Sulabh's mineral-rich water.

Culturally it's a stretch at this point, as are the heavy bags of promotional materials and CDs lauding Dr Pathak's achievements that we are each gifted to take away.

Among the materials are cards that play his song when opened, etching the lyrics "there's no need to expose yourself more, have the privacy that you wished for" into our minds for days to come.

However, none of this craziness detracts from Sulabh International's genuine cause. I can never forget the sight of kilometre after kilometre of people defecating in the open during an early morning train trip through the countryside on my first trip to India two decades ago.

I remember the horror I felt that they were suffering such indignity and I also know how hard it can be to find a toilet in India, and how uncomfortable that can make life for a woman.

Access to toilets is a basic human right, one we take for granted in New Zealand and one which Dr Pathak, despite his self-promotion, is a hero for championing.

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