Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:


by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.


Wisdom of the Ages: Thiruvalluvar Day

What was his name?

What was his faith?

What was his occupation?

When did he live?

Who knows? And more importantly, who cares?

For the heritage of poetry, philosophy, dharma and wisdom he has left us is beyond all these.

Thiruvalluvar, the revered Tamil poet, whose Thirukural even today is taught in every school in Tamil Nadu, and whose couplets on a range of subjects, from love and family life to economics and politics, are quoted by politicians, movie stars, professors, and common people alike, to clinch any argument.

I am but a poor Tamilian, who can neither read nor write Tamil, and am hence missing out on the riches of one of the world’s most ancient languages. Maybe to make up, I decided to do this blog on Thiruvalluvar on the occasion of Thiruvalluvar Day, Jan 15. The Tamil Nadu government has been observing this day as part of Pongal celebrations for many decades now.

Very little is known about him. Even his name is not certain—his works do not name an author! In fact, the Thirukural as a book itself does not carry a name! The French translator Ariel has referred to it as ‘the book without a name by an author without a name’.

His works have been dated by various scholars from 4th century BC to 5th century AD! In 1935, Govt. of Tamilnadu recognized 35 BC as the Year of Valluvar.

He may have been a Hindu. Equally, he may have been a Jain. Some claim Christian influences in his work. Many scholars hold he was beyond religion. For instance, Mu. Varadarajan says he probably “practiced religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs.”

He may have been a weaver, a farmer, a priest, a drummer or an ‘outcaste’.

What is of moment are his works, especially the Thirukural, a collection of 1330 couplets. Each couplet consists of just seven words (termed ‘kural’), but pithily encapsulates wisdom. The 1330 verses have been divided into three sections by the author: the first is Arathuppaal which gives norms and codes for a virtuous life; the second, Porutpaal deals with the right way of acquiring wealth and expounds the fundamentals of politics and statecraft; the last, Kamathuppaal deals with family life and love in all its manifestations.

While urging you to visit any of the many sites devoted to the Kural and its translations, here is just a taste to whet the appetite:

Verse 211: Kaimmaru venda kadappadu marimattu ennarrun kollo ulaku.


The benevolent expect no return for their dutiful giving.

How can the world ever repay the rain cloud?

Verse 541: Orndhukan notaadhu iraipurindhu yaarmaattum therndhusey vaqdhe murai.


Investigate well, show favor to none, maintain impartiality

Consult the law, then give judgment-that is the way of justice.

Verse 1032 : Uzhuvaar ulakaththaarkku aaniaq thaatraadhu ezhuvaarai ellaam poruththu.


Farmers are the linchpin of the world

For they support all those who take to other work, not having the strength to plow.


Based on Wikipedia (of course!), as well as ‘Tirukkural-Arathuppal’ Prof SN Chokkalingam, Vanitha Press; and

What Will 2021 Mark?

Hopefully, safe and effective vaccines against COVID, a fair, equitable and swift distribution of the same, and life back to normal!

It will also mark, as decided by the international community, several other things:

World Health Organization has appropriately designated 2021 as the International Year of Health and Care Workers in recognition of the dedication and sacrifice of the millions of health and care workers at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, unanimously

United Nations (UN) has, through various resolutions, decided that 2021 shall be marked as:

  • International Year of Peace and Trust
  • International Year of Fruits and Vegetables  
  • International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour
  • International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development 

The first three are self-evident, and much needed, especially in the post-Covid world. But I was not familiar with the fourth—i.e., what is a Creative Economy?

Well, it seems that Creative Economy is not easy to define, and there are about 27 definitions floating around. Apparently the term was introduced by Peter Coy in 2000, and at its crux, it is an economy driven by “the growing power of ideas.”  John Howkins was the next to define it, and referred to it as ‘a new way of thinking and doing that revitalizes manufacturing, services, retailing, and entertainment industries.’ Ana Carla Fonseca  says that creative economy is about ‘products and services that rely on creativity to generate innovation, added value and differentiation”.  According to UNESCO and Ernst and Young, as of 2015, about 3% of the world’s GDP (more than US$ 2.25 trillion in revenue) pertained to creative economy.

As per a fairly accepted classification, there are four major sectors of the creative economy:


– Editorial (books, magazines and digital content)

– Audiovisual (video content, television schedule and broadcast in general)


– Architecture (building, landscape and environmental design, space planning)

– Design (products and visual and multimedia content)

– Fashion (clothing design)

– Advertising (creation of publicity pieces, marketing, market research and event organization)


– Arts and Cultural Heritage (museology, cultural production and heritage sites)

– Music (recording, edition, creation and music interpretation)

– Performing arts (acting, production and direction of shows)

– Cultural expressions (handcraft, folklore, cuisine and festivals)


– Research and Development (academic research)

– Biotechnology (bioengineering and lab research)

– Information technology (software, systems development and robotics).

Well, I suppose that doing a blog is a creative enterprise. So I shall count myself as a part of the creative economy (though sadly this one adds nothing to the GDP nor our personal bank accounts, so I wonder if it is an economic activity!).

And on a more serious note, this blog shall do its best and its bit to mark the other themes– Peace and Trust; Fruits and Vegetables; Elimination of Child Labour; and Health and Care Workers.

Happy 2021. May it be Peaceful and Healthy!


The Artful Microbes

2020 has been a year dominated by a microbe. In our imaginations and our nightmares, microbes are demonic creatures which have brought the world to its knees, and are out to destroy us. The year has served to reinforce a general belief that bacteria and viruses are villainous creatures behind disease and death.

However, as all of us who have gone through middle-school biology know, on the balance, microbes as a class do more good than harm.  To recall, microbes are microscopic living organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, There are five main groups of microbes: bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and protozoa. While some of them do cause disease, many microbes are beneficial, and many, many others do neither active harm nor good but are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. Bacteria and fungi in the soil are essential for decomposing organic matter and recycling old plant material. Some soil microbes form relationships with plant roots and help provide the plant with important nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus. In fact, we could not digest food without gut bacteria. They protect against infection and even maintain reproductive health. We would not have bread or yogurt without microbes. Scientists say that nearly fifty percent of the oxygen that is present in the atmosphere is produced by bacteria.

But listings are boring and a picture is worth a 1000 words! And that is what the work of the American Society for Microbiology does for microbes through its annual ASM Agar ArtContest. The results of the 2020 edition were just announced. And they help us appreciate microbes–not through a recital of benefits, but by creating art with them!

First Prize: “Strands of Antisense” by Riley Cutler, Mississippi State University Starkville.

This annual contest is for ‘art created in a petri dish using living, growing microorganisms. Creators use either naturally colorful microbes, like the red bacteria Serratia marcescens, or genetically modified microbes, like the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae transformed with violacein genes, as ‘paint’ and various types, shapes and sizes of agar as a ‘canvas.’

The contest has been gaining popularity and this year’s edition had close to 200 countries entries from 29 countries across the world. It vindicates Fleming (yes indeed, the discoverer of penicillin) who was probably the first agar artist but whose art form was not appreciated in his time. He would fill Petri dishes with agar (a medium used to grow microbes), and then use a lab instrument called a loop to introduce different types of bacteria on different parts of the agar. He created many ‘paintings’ by culturing microbes of different natural colours—brown, violet, pink, yellow, orange etc., in Petri dishes, planned in way to create colourful patterns. It is not that simple either. Because he had to find the right colour of bacteria and dexterously introduce it on the exact spot on the dish. Further, different bacteria grow as different speeds, and hence have to be introduced at different times, with the end result in mind. And the art is ephemeral, because soon one bacteria will grow into another’s space and blur things out.

Second Prize: “Microbial Peacock: Balaram Khamari. Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Puttaparthi, India

Agar art thus is not just about creating beautiful things where they are least expected. But today, is also being recognized as a part of the art curriculum in some countries, and incorporated into biology curricula in some, since it has the potential to help students learn so much about microbes in such a hands-on way.

Thank you ASM, for showing us beauty where we least expect it, for helping us to put things in perspective, and for providing a platform for art to take wings! In 2021, may we too be able to do this in our everyday lives! May the year bring victory over the ‘bad’ microbes!


Though these words did not make it to any listings, here are two words without which it is impossible to study microbes:


agar (noun) · agar-agar (noun)a gelatinous substance obtained from certain red seaweeds and used in biological culture media and as a thickener in foods.

Petri dish

A Petri dish is a shallow transparent lidded dish that biologists use to hold growth medium in which cells can be cultured, originally, cells of bacteria, fungi and small mosses. The container is named after its inventor, German bacteriologist Julius Richard Petri. It is the most common type of culture plate. The Petri dish is one of the most common items in biology laboratories.

Pics from:

Go Figure: National Mathematics Day

December 22, the birthday of the mathematical genius Shri Srinivasa Ramanujam, has been observed as National Mathematics Day in India since 2012, the start of the celebration of his 125th birth anniversary. The Day has, since then, been marked in schools and colleges by special events like maths quizzes, competitions etc. Hopefully, the enthusiasm will be carried over to the digital medium this year.

Those of us who fear math will also recall they feared their math teachers. In fact, the fear of math stems in most of us because we just did not understand what was happening in the class. And math teachers seldom felt the need to do anything differently to help students understand the abstract concepts better.

It is in this light that Mathematics Educators like Shri AR Rao stand out. He dedicated his life to math education and inspired generations.

Born in the small village of Jakka Samudram of Salem district, Tamilnadu, he had his initial schooling at Tanjore—not far from Kumbakonam, where Ramanujam and studied lived when he was young.  He studied chemistry, not mathematics at graduate level, and then took a post graduate degree from Chennai. But his karmabhumi was Gujarat. He joined Bahauddin College, Junagadh in 1933, as a Professor of Mathematics and spent 27 years there. After that he taught in various other colleges in the state.

After ‘retirement’ in 1974, he started his second innings. He became a mathematician at VASCSC (Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre), a pioneering science education facility in the county. The teacher of formal mathematics became the flag-bearer of non-formal mathematics as a means to popularize mathematics. His mission was to make mathematics enjoyable for students and everyone else.

His innovative mind came up with dozens of puzzles, games, models and teaching aids towards this.

He set up India’s first Mathematics Laboratory at VASCSC. He traveled, attended workshops and seminars, and spoke all over the country to popularize these ideas.

I had the great good fortune of having interacted with Shri AR Rao to some extent. When I was helping at VASCSC, his 90th birthday came up. It was decided to throw a surprise party at the Centre. Just to ensure that he did come in that day, a message was sent to him that the Trustees wanted to meet him.

I still remember the joy and the excitement of the many students and bhakts who came for the party. And at last the guest of honour, Shri AR Rao, walked in. He was truly surprised and thrilled. He almost broke down when it was his turn to speak. He said that he had come in very nervously, thinking that the Trustees had wanted to meet him to ask him to retire now that he was 90! Such was his love and passion for spreading the word on mathematics education that he wanted to come in to work at this age. And indeed he did, till the age of 100. He passed away on 4th April, 2011.

If today the teaching of mathematics in India has become more comprehensible to the average student, if students appreciate and enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and if teachers have begun to employ innovative methods to teach the subject, Prof. AR Rao had a lot to do with it.

It would be appropriate to end with a quote from him:

“Although everyone concedes that without mathematics, modern science and technology can hardly make any progress, it is common knowledge that the students everywhere consider mathematics as a very difficult subject. Of the many reasons that can be found for this, perhaps, the most important are, some defective methods of teaching, over emphasis on exams and indiscriminate cramming of materials from the text books and the so-called guides. So what is really needed is inculcation of a power of understanding and a capacity of creative thinking.” AR Rao.

Blessed indeed to have met such people!


Much of the material has been drawn from

Stamp on Numbers

Actually, that should read ‘Stamps on Numbers’. But ‘Stamp on Numbers’ is something I would have liked to say to my Math teachers, so let me work it out my system!

Browsing through the books in the home bookshelf is an obsessive COVID activity with me, as with many others. In this exercise, I came across a book entitled ‘Wonder of Numbers’ by Clifford Pickover. While I am sure the book has lots to teach on mathematics, what I found most interesting was a snippet that the country of Nicaragua had, in 1971, issued a series of stamps called the “The 10 mathematical formulas which have changed the face of the world”. The ten selected formulae:

  • 1 + 1 = 2
  • Pythagorean law for right-angled triangles
  • Archimedes’ law of moments
  • Napier’s law of logarithms
  • Newton’s law of gravitation
  • Maxwell’s law of electromagnetism
  • de Broglie’s law of light waves
  • Tsiolkovskii’s law of rocket motion
  • Boltzmann’s law of entropy, and
  • Einstein’s law of relativity.  

The back of each stamp apparently has a small explanation of the formula. No one is quite sure how these particular formulae were selected, but what I found most fascinating was that a country would think of putting out such a series!

Delving a little more taught me that there were several hundreds of stamps across the world, devoted to mathematics and mathematicians.

Several countries have brought out stamps on Mathematics Education.

Nicaragua, Iran and Mexico have brought out stamps on the theme of ‘Counting on Fingers’. There are several stamps which highlight calculating instruments like Pascal’s Mechanical Calculator, William Schickard’ calculating device, the Slide Rule, etc.

A number of stamps have featured statistical themes, such as a graph showing the Norwegian gross national product growth from 1876 to 1976, and one depicting the decline in malaria.

There have been many stamps devoted to games and pastimes based on mathematical reasoning. Chess and Go—a Chinese game—have quite a few each. But so do other lesser known ones–Senet an early form of backgammon; an Egyptian game from 1350 BC played by two players on a 3 x 10 board; the African game of eklan which consists of a board with 24 holes, arranged in concentric squares into which sticks are inserted etc.  Of course, the Rubik cube, invented by the Hungarian engineer Erno Rubik, a coloured cube whose six faces can be independently rotated so as to yield 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 different patterns, has a stamp or two.

The metric system was introduced in 1960 and gradually, most countries have adopted this system of weights and measures. There are quite a few ‘metrication stamps’ including:

  • a Brazilian metric ruler
  • a Romanian stamp demonstrating that a metre is one ten-millionth of the distance from the north pole to the equator
  • a stamp from Pakistan demonstrating the metric units of weight, capacity and length
  • two Australian cartoon stamps featuring the metric conversion of length and temperature
  • a Ghanaian stamp indicating that a metre of cloth is a little more than 3 feet 3 inches.

Since 1897, International Congresses of Mathematicians have been held at which thousands of mathematicians from around the world gather to learn about the latest developments in their subject. These meetings usually take place every four years. Several of these congresses have been commemorated by stamps.

India has a few mathematical stamps too. Aryabhatta, Ramanujam and DD Kosambi are celebrated on Indian stamps. Jantar Mantar, the remarkable observatory designed by mathematicians and astronomers figures on a stamp too. The decimal system which originated in India and is a fundamental contribution, is actually celebrated in a stamp brought out by Nepal through a depiction of an Ashoka Pillar from Lumbini, which portrays this.

My search engine wanderings led me to a world which I did not know existed, and from where I have gleaned most of this information. The world of people who love mathematics, stamps and mathematical stamps .

Some of these, which are also the sources of much of the above information:

Stamping through Mathematics. Robin J. Wilson. Springer.

Mathematics and science : an adventure in postage stamps. William L.Schaaf. Reston.

Have fun!


Peanuts for Bulls

One of Bangalore’s landmarks is the Dodda Basavana Gudi (Big Bull Temple), which is situated–surprise, surprise, on Bull Temple Road, Basanvangudi, South Bengaluru. It was built by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bangalore, around 1537. It is dedicated to Nandi, the vahana or mount of Lord Shiva, and the monolithic statue has a height of 4.6 metres and a length of 6.1 metres. This Nandi is probably the biggest in the world.

But where do the peanuts come in? Well, apparently, this was a prolific peanut-growing area many centuries ago. But year after year, a wild bull would rampage through the fields just when they were ready for harvest, and would destroy the crops. Over time, the problem grew so worrisome that the farmers were desperate. They vowed to build a temple dedicated to Nandi if only the bull would stop. They did so, and miraculously, the bull stopped its depredations.

A board at the temple has a slightly different version. According to this, one of the angry farmers whose peanut fields the bull was destroying, hit it with a club. The stunned bull sat down motionless and turned into stone. But then it started to grow and grow! The worried farmers prayed to Lord Shiva. A trident found near the feet of the bull was placed on its head, and at last it stopped growing. The grateful farmers then built a small temple, which was later enlarged by Kempe Gowda.

And in gratitude, farmers also decided to hold an annual peanut fair (Kadalekai Parase) in the area around the temple. It is held on the last Monday of the month of Karthik (that is next Monday, 14 December). Originally, farmers would make an annual visit to Bengaluru to sell their peanuts, but today most sellers here are traders who buy from the farmers and sell. Not only can groundnuts be bought and stored for the year, but peanut connoisseurs will  find a large variety of snacks to choose from–spiced, fried, boiled, roasted and sugar-coated groundnuts.

Not just a tasty snack, groundnuts are good as a source of protein. It is of course a major oil crop—in fact India’s most significant one. The green or dried leaves are used as cattle-feed. Being a leguminous crop, it does the soil good too, by fixing nitrogen. Approximately 85 lakh hectares of agricultural land in India are under groundnut cultivation and the annual production is about 7200 thousand tonnes.  

Well, COVID is bound to interfere with beautiful traditions like the peanut fair, but its importance in our lives will not wane. And hopefully Kadalekai Parase 2021 will give us all our nut-fix!


See also: ‘The Worshipful Bull’,

When Social Responsibility was Risky Business!

Philanthropy has been garnering headlines in the world media for some years now, with the most successful entrepreneurs speaking more about their giving initiatives that their businesses. And it has indeed set off a virtuous cycle.  

But lest we think giving by industrialists is a new phenomenon …

In continuation of last week’s blog which marked 13 November (designated as World Kindness Day), and November 16 (International Day for Tolerance and Peace), here is a look at a few examples of Indian industrialists whose philanthropy exhibited a sense of enlightenment and responsibility that was path-breaking . The critical thing to remember is that most of the industrialists of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries saw building up India’s industry and infrastructure and supporting the freedom movement as their most critical social responsibilities. They were flying in the face of the Raj in doing this, and the Raj had the power to destroy them! But that did not stop them.

The Vision of Jamsetji Tata

Shri Jamsetji Tata was a pioneer in setting India on the path to industrial self-reliance. But it was not just about technology. His vision for the well-being of his workers was truly enlightened. Way back in the 1880s, he offered facilities like crèches for workers in his mills, as well as short working hours, properly ventilated workspaces, fire safety, etc. In 1886 he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, began to pay accident compensation.

The story of Jamshedpur is another testimony to his vision. The work on this township for housing the workers of the Steel Mills was commenced in 1908. Shri Jamsetji dreamt of more than basic housing for his workers. He wanted to build a proper modern planned city. His instructions regarding the city were:  “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches.”

It was private philanthropy that led to the creation of institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It is said that Jamsetji mooted the idea of contributing to an institute like IISC as early as 1898, long before Carnegie’s endowment to set up a Technical School (today Carnegie Mellon University).

From Temples to Gods, to Temples of Education

Shri G.D. Birla was a strong supporter of Gandhiji and gave considerable resources to the freedom struggle. Many of us would have at some time or other visited a Birla Mandir–many a large town in India boasts one. Apart from this charitable activity of temple-building, a landmark contribution of Shri Birla is the creation of one of India’s best higher educational institutions—the Birla Institute of Technology. This was started as a school for G.D. Birla and R.D. Birla by their grandfather in 1901. It grew into a high school  in the 1920s. In the forties, the Birla Education Trust was founded and the institution went from strength to strength, adding degree and post-graduate courses in a variety of disciplines.  In 1964, taking advantage of a Ford Foundation grant, the institute formed a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, and was well on the path to leading India’s achievements in technical education.

Gandhi Ashram is Saved!

When Gandhiji  first came to Ahmedabad, he set up his Ashram at Kochrab. He invited a Dalit family– Dudabhai and Danibehn–to come and live at the Ashram. This led to considerable agitation among the Ashram’s neighbours as well as many funders, leading to a financial crisis, which forced Gandhiji to think of shifting the Ashram.

Kochrab Ashram

And then one day, in Gandhiji’s words: “A car drew up near our quarters and the horn was blown. The children came with the news. The sheth did not come in. I went out to see him. He placed in my hands currency notes to the value of Rs 13,000 and drove away. I had never expected this help, and what a novel way of rendering it!”

This gift saved the Ashram. It is well-known that the ‘Sheth’ was Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the foremost industrialists of the time. However, neither he nor Gandhiji ever admitted this!

Jamnalal Bajaj: Exemplary Patriotism

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa to his dedication to the poor to his commitment to locally made goods and his patriotic spirit. He fought for admission of Harijans into temples, and in the face of strong objections, opened up his own family temple in Wardha—the first temple in the country to do this.

Shri Bajaj was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government and joined the non-cooperation movement.

Importantly, Jamnalalji, in line with the trusteeship concept propounded by Gandhiji, felt that inherited wealth was a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people, and dedicated most of his wealth for the poor and under-privileged.

On the shoulders of giants….


Toilet Travails

Last week we marked World Toilet Day. Continuing on the theme, I thought I would share some experiences of constructing and running urban public pay-and-use toilets. Never a dull moment in this game, I assure you. But the stories about operations I shall keep for another occasion. Here I would like to share some feedback from a survey we did of women in Hyderabad, as part of our planning exercise before we took up construction of toilets when the city decided, for the first time, to open up this activity in Public Private Partnership mode. The survey is over a decade old. But sadly, most of the challenges we found still probably stand.

Here are some of the findings from a survey of close to 400 women:

  • About a fourth of the respondents were not even aware that there are Pay-and-Use toilet facilities for women.
  • About half the respondents reported that they wait till they reach home even if they feel the need to use a toilet when they are out. 
  • Women in higher economic strata, non-working women and students use these facilities significantly less than women from lower economic strata and working women.
  • 64.2% of those respondents who used public convenience had a bad experience. The reported major reasons for the  ‘bad experience’ were:
1. Unhygienic Conditions92.5
2. Insufficient water availability69.2
3. Bad smell62.8
4. Caretaker being male57
5. Joint infrastructure (both male and female facilities in one building, with a partition)53
6. Feeling of insecurity36.4

The respondents also made several valuable suggestions:

  • About 53% women suggested that there should be exclusive toilets for women.
  • Around 57% women opined that the caretaker of the public toilet should be properly trained and should be gentle, and he/she should be educated and middle-aged.
  • Respondents also expressed that the following facilities are needed by women in  public toilets; dustbins for disposable things; small shelves for women carrying things; mug and bucket provision; mirror; good lighting and alternative lighting arrangement in case of power fails.
  • Indian and western toilets both to be provided for convenience of various types of users.
  • Security is paramount.
  • Proper maintenance, cleaning at regular intervals and supervision.
  • In some cases, men are using the space around the toilets as the toilets! This not only leads to bad smell but also a feeling of embarrassment on the part of women who want to enter.
  • In many toilets, there is no proper indication for “gents” and “ladies”, which creates problem for women in using public toilets.

Public toilets are definitely more prevalent today than a decade ago. And the maintenance is not as bad as it was. But I think some of the survey findings and recommendations are still very relevant to those concerned about public sanitation, and about making the most basic of facilities accessible to one half of humanity!


‘Down in the Dumps’ Day

No, let me hasten to clarify that there is no such Day. But there is indeed a World Toilet Day which is observed on 19th November every year, and ‘celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation’. The Day is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: Water and Sanitation for all by 2030.

Well, if we were to ‘celebrate toilets’ as urged in the mission, I would advocate for  a lovely little book called ‘Toilets of the World’ by Morna Gregory and Sian James, and published by Merrell Publishers.

The book begins with a very brief History of Toilets which is followed by a continent-wise round-up of interesting toilets. The beautiful colour plates are themselves an education of how creative photographers can make art out of not conventionally photogenic items!

Here are some interesting nuggets of information from the book.

  • The oldest known flush toilet is that of the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, dating back to 1700 BC.
  • Solid waste generated by astronauts in space is compressed into round, flat discs and brought back to earth. NASA’s toilet engineers refer to them as ‘people patties’.
  • Toilets on board ships are referred to as ‘heads’.

And here are some toilets mentioned in the book which caught my attention for their ‘extreme’ qualities:

Public Toilet, Ephesus, Turkey. About 200 AD.

Keith Siding Road, Crandon Wisconcin: Someone as part of their garden decorations has put up an outhouse with the sign ‘Up North Rest Stop’. The door of the facility is open, and on the toilet sits a life-like lady in full view of the road, using the facilities!

Incahuasi Island, Bolivia: In the middle of 12000 sq. km. salt desert is a toilet carved from the trunk of dried cactus, with the needles removed to allow for comfortable seating.

30-Gold Store, Kowloon: This gold washroom put up in his shop by a Hong Kong jeweler is down in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive washroom. Fixtures, sinks, toilet brushes, toilet paper holders, all are made of gold.

Ancient Roman City, Ephesus, Turkey: Built around 200 AD, these communal pay-and-use marble latrines were for men only, and were a place for social gatherings and where many business deals were struck. Slaves used to come in early to literally warm the seats so that their masters did not feel the chill of the marble on their bottoms. There are many other yucky details, which I will refrain from sharing. (The picture is from an unforgettable family trip there.)

For more interesting information on toilets, the place to visit would of course be the unique Sulabh International Museum of Toilets at  New Delhi, which, to quote the museum website ‘has a rare collection of facts, pictures and objects detailing the historic evolution of toilets from 2500 BC to date. It provides a chronological account of developments relating to technology, toilet related social customs, toilet etiquettes, prevailing sanitary conditions and legislative efforts of different times. It has an extensive display of privies, chamber pots, toilet furniture, bidets and water closets in use from 1145 AD to the modern times. It also has a rare collection of beautiful poems related to toilet, their usage.’

In India, where close to half the population does not have a toilet at home, and where no ‘nudge’ or carrot or stick or government slogan seems to work towards reducing open defecation, every day has to be Toilet Day, and every person a Toilet Warrior!

Let’s get Vocal for Local Toilets!


PS: I had borrowed this book from a dear friend David Foster and hope to meet him soon to return it.

PPS: Photo credit: Ashok Seshan