ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Indian Sanitation

Squatting with Dignity: Lessons from India by Kumar Alok (New Delhi: Sage), 2010; pp 412, Rs 850.





international learning exchange on sani-

Indian Sanitation

tation, eco-sanitation, solid and liquid waste management, etc.

Ravichandaran Bathran Hinduism, Caste, Cleanliness

n his book, Squatting with Dignity: Lessons from India, Kumar Alok analyses the success and challenges encountered in the rural sanitation movement. The objective of the book is to analyse the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC), and suggest ways to achieve the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals accepted by India. The campaign focuses on making rural India free from open defecation. Alok writes that in rural areas the top killer diseases affecting children aged below four years are caused by contaminated water and poor sanitation. Further, human excreta is an organic matter, if it decomposes in the open it produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane resulting in global warming. The author argues that adopting safe sanitation and hygienic behaviour would lead to convenience, privacy and pride. Improved access to safe water and adequate sanitation can make a major contribution to poverty reduction and improving the overall quality of life.

Total Sanitation

Despite the possible advantages, a large number of people lack access to basic sanitation and drinking water facilities. At the end of the last century sanitation had been given high priority by the State. Hence, the TSC, launched in 1999, focused on making rural areas free from open defecation through several promotional programmes, including the construction of new toilets for households, schools, anganwadis, and converting dry latrines into pour flush latrines.

TSC provides reasonable economic support and materials for new toilets in the

Squatting with Dignity: Lessons from India

by Kumar Alok (New Delhi: Sage), 2010; pp 412, Rs 850.

households. TSC also organises awareness programmes for the general public with the support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the media, in addition to conducting special educational programmes for bureaucrats. Panchayat raj institutions (PRIs) are the major beneficiaries of TSC programmes. In 2003 the TSC constituted the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) “clean village award” to promote PRIs’ involvement in the sanitation projects. The award is conferred on PRIs which successfully complete TSC projects within the stipulated time. The author claims that within a short span of time, the campaign has “influenced” the lives of millions in rural areas across India. However, the author also says that the success of TSC in terms of the number of panchayats which became free from open defecation was meagre.

Nevertheless, Alok is optimistic about achieving total sanitation in India within five years, through certain policy measures. He proposes including sanitation as a subject in the civil engineering curri culum, which the author feels would create a new breed of engineers who would compensate for the lack of expertise. He also advocates the inclusion of urban areas within the purview of the TSC, uniform policy guidelines for all states, promoting friendly toilets for the differently-abled, consolidating the implementation of sanitation technology in railways, a national campaign focusing on cleanliness,

december 17, 2011

Alok’s analysis of TSC brings forth significant issues for further discussion. His understanding of the issue of sanitation is firmly rooted in a problematic combination of Vedic tradition and state policies. The author draws on Vedic literature to build his arguments. He claims (p 18) that the Vedic period represents

the most noteworthy phase in Indian history, which trace their [Caste-Hindus’] cultural life to the Vedas, which they hold to be divine truths revealed from time to time to the Rishis (seers) in their super normal consciousness.

He further writes (p 19),

Manu Samhita contains a set of verses which talk about the places where defecation and urination were permitted and places prohibiting passage of stool or urine. The code was very clear and rigid regarding maintaining environmental sanitation…

Alok gives long quotations from the Hindu sacred texts which emphasise the importance of maintaining cleanliness and hygiene in daily life.

However, he conveniently eschews any discussion on how some castes were assigned mandatory and rigid traditional occupations, which are labelled unclean and impure by the very same Manu Samhita. This legal treatise says,

Their (out-caste) dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place [v.10.52.].

There are stringent punishments for those who try to be equal. One of those punishments I quote (Manusmrti 8: 281).

If a man of inferior caste (polluted) tries to sit down on the same seat as a man of

vol xlvi no 51

Economic & Political Weekly


superior caste, he should be branded on the

hip and banished, or have his buttocks cut off.

Such a theory of inequality preached in the Manusmrti exists as a general practice in present-day Indian society, especially in the Indian villages. Manu says that the untouchables should live outside the village and continue serving the village in menial and unclean occupations (v.10.51).

In this context the role model village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra, for which Anna Hazare was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Indian state is a good example. There are three houses of Matangs in the village. They are still tied to their traditional occupation of making brooms and ropes. There have been no elections of the gram panchayat in the village for the last 24 years. In the gram sabha, representatives to the panchayat as well as the societies are nominated. Elections are not allowed here too (Sharma 2006). Instead of upholding the rule of law, the state functionaries uphold inequality. It is also not surprising to see that the TSC focuses on promoting the PRIs, which is part of the state apparatus in the villages for its implementation. The Nehruvian belief that all the social issues could be addressed through state policy is supplemented with the Gandhian insight that varnasramadharma (the caste divided orga ni s ation of society) is a better way of organising people’s lives.

A book like the Manu Samhita, with inequality at its heart, surely cannot be the basis of arguments that seek to resolve the question of sanitation democratically. Unfortunately, such biased texts are not only referred to positively, but also upheld and followed even for present-day policies, as the book under review illustrates.

Purity and Modern India

The form of unequal treatment meted out to the untouchable has changed in the modern era. Hence, it is important to pay close attention to the difference between the caste system in the pre-modern and modern eras. In pre-modern India, the caste system involved material practices with two things embedded in it. First, the untouchables lived outside the village and, second, they were in unclean/menial occupations. Those two are the outward registers, while at the same time there was an inward feeling of defilement, odium,

Economic & Political Weekly

december 17, 2011

aversion and contempt (Ambedkar 1982: 492). Hence the untouchable “causing pollution by touch” was at two different levels, one is literal and the other notional. What makes it difficult to break the system of untouchability is the Hindu religious sanction of the practice of untouchability in the notional sense. The ordinary Hindu looks upon it as part of his religion. There is little doubt that in adopting what is deemed to be inhuman behaviour, the Hindu does so more from the sense of observing his religion than from any motive of deliberate cruelty (Ambedkar 1982: 493). Therefore, in India a person is a scavenger by birth and not due to his occupation. Ambedkar argues,

Untouchability will vanish only when Hindus will change their mentality. The problem is how to make the Hindus unlearn their way of life. It is no small matter to make a whole nation give up its accustomed way of life. Besides the way of life the Hindus are accustomed to, is a way which is sanctified by their religion, at any rate they believe it to be so (1989: 144).

Instead of removing the cruel notion of the caste system inside the thinking of the caste Hindus, the state and the civil society focus on the occupation or the living condition, which is only an outward expression of the inner notions which structure the thinking of caste Hindus. Thus, the state and civil society manage to show their shrewd sincerity on this issue without actually addressing the matter at hand. As a result, they argue for and often provide better equipment in relation to the occupation or they talk about the cleanliness of their households. However, none of these actions will remove the caste system. The present sanitation campaign, discussed in this book, is another example of such a programme constructing toilets for households in the rural areas.

Explaining Away Scavengers

At one level Alok holds Vedic literature, which preaches inequality, as sacrosanct and then claims that the system of scavenging and its stigma came into force during the Mughal period with the introduction of the purdah system where Muslim women used to wear the burka (veil) and were not allowed to go out to defecate (p 33). Such a strange narration of India’s medieval history seems intended only to make the Muslim responsible for introducing the scavenging

vol xlvi no 51

system. It is unquestionable that the caste system has always been integral to Hindu society, and it is illogical, and intensely political, to say that the scavenging system came into force due to Muslim rule. The Hindu nationalist has always sustained the caste system in practice, while glorifying and heaping lavish praise on the scavenging communities. Here we see in operation a favoured narration which makes the Muslim responsible for the caste system and scavenging, at the same time bringing the untouchables into the fold of Hindus.

Most of the so-called nationalists were comfortable with Gandhi’s notion of untouchability, which was to improve the condition of sweeping, but were not prepared to abolish the basis of untouchability. In other words they were not for emancipation of scavenging castes but only for reforming the excesses within the caste occupation (Prasad 2000: 117).

The nationalist appropriation of the scavenging system into its narration also extends to the appropriation of people. Alok, at one point, says (p 35), “Inspired by him [Gandhi], a large number of disciples worked relentlessly for this purpose and notable among them were… Shri B R Ambekdar…”

This act of naming Ambedkar as a disciple of Gandhi only proves that the author is completely unaware of the tempestuous relationship between these two. Ambedkar was one of the few intellectuals and political figures to outright reject Gandhi’s ideology. I agree with Prasad’s argument that the Gandhian solution to untouchability and the caste system, for the most part, entailed a valorisation of the dalits as sweepers, not now to be seen as the “lowest occupation”, but indeed as the “highest”.

The State and Sanitation

Sanitation is defined as “prevention of human contact with the hazards of waste”. A large number of people working in contact with “waste” have been whitewashed by both the government agencies and the author, by not including scavengers or municipality workers in the definition of sanitation. When it comes to common removal of human excreta (second or third person shit), in municipality, or common toilets, these voices, however, become muted. The state does not provide logistics


to the scavenging communities, rather it forces them to do the cleaning of “waste” in an unhygienic manner. If the state promotes hygiene among the scavenging occupation, it implies that the state has to spend a large amount of money on mechanisation. However, even if it invested in mechanisation and other modernisation of the sanitation sector which reduces or eliminates immediate human contact with “waste”, it will still not remove the caste stigma embedded with the occupation. Therefore, no other community/caste will be willing to take up the occupation of sanitation (Ramaswamy 2005: 23). If the state genuinely wants to eradicate the scavenging caste system then it would have to undermine all the discriminative practices of the caste system and the biased preachings emanating from the Hindu texts, which many people hold sacrosanct.

It is due to the lack of clarity in the issue of sanitation in India that the TSC or the author cannot provide clear guidelines as to who should clean the common toilets in schools, community complexes, etc. Since the state cannot ask the scavenging community to do the job, therefore a Gandhian understanding would be to construct an independent toilet for each person where he cleans his own shit. However, the state cannot escape the government schools. Therefore in schools the TSC encourages the children to clean the toilets on a rotation basis. But the reality, as seen in many villages, is that the dalit students are forced to clean the toilet. This has resulted in protest and opposition from the dalit movement. In the school’s context the author says, in a somewhat disjointed sentence, that there is a need to recognise the dignity of labour. The question which remains unanswered is why does this dignity need to be recognised only by the dalits, why cannot everyone recognise this dignity and clean others’ shit?

Other long-term issues are also neglected in the TSC because of the perceived ideas on sanitation, based on the notions of caste, remain unquestioned. Take one illustration. Open defecation may not require people to clean it; however when toilets are constructed, at some or the other point of time scavengers will be required to clean the pit. This is evident even in modern cities and institutional spaces where we find them getting into drainages and manholes to remove the blockade and many time they come out dead due to the toxic gases.

New from SAGE!


The title of the book Squatting with Dignity, contradicts itself. It implies that people can squat with dignity. All through the book, the author himself says that before the ngp award was introduced by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the sanitation campaign could not move forward. It is true people were not comfortable with open defecation but certainly it was not a question of their dignity, as the author presents. Then whose “dignity” is it? It appears, from a reading of the book, that the dignity at stake is that of the “nation”, which remains the silent presence throughout the book. Only in his acknowledgements does the author declaim “open defecation has been the biggest national shame”.

Therefore the saddest part is even if some people are concerned with the question of sanitation, they fail to understand the hidden caste/religious construction of scavenging and the scavenger’s identity. Certainly it is the state education apparatus which keeps us away from this very




Case Studies from South Asia

















ZZZVDJHSXELQLos Angeles „ London „ New Delhi „ Singapore „Washington DC

december 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 51

Economic Political Weekly


important topic, and there is growing antagonism towards anyone who questions caste-based discrimination and occupation. This book is a blueprint of the Indian state functionaries’ experience and attempts to provide “constructive” suggestions from that perspective. This book provides a view of this perspective and shows us that the scavenging population has been bypassed by the Indian state’s modernity drive.

A politically informed and socially relevant way of looking at the issue of sanitation ought to, first, involve a study of the ways in which historically the notion of caste-based occupation was constructed and the processes through which it developed, and then to educate the masses while rejecting those heinous Hindu texts which strengthen and justify inequality. This cannot be done through a valorisation of the caste system and its occupation. The state’s failure has been that it has viewed

Akyuz, Yilmaz, ed. (2011); The Financial Crisis and Asian Developing Countries (Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network); pp 344, price not indicated.

Alam Ishrat and Syed Ejaz Hussain, ed. (2011); The Varied Facets of History: Essays in Honour of Aniruddha Ray (Delhi: Primus Books); pp vi + 307, Rs 795.

Amrith, Sunil S (2011); Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xviii + 215, Rs 795.

Bagchi, Amiya Kumar, David Washbrook, Arup Maharatna and Arun Bandopadhyay (2011); Four Essays on Writing Economic History of Colonial India

(Kolkata with Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata: Progressive Publishers); pp 119, Rs 150.

Bajo, Claudia Sanchez and Bruno Roelants (2011);

Capital and the Debt Trap: Learning from Cooperatives in the Global Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); pp xiv + 274, price not indicated.

Balagopal, K (2011); Ear to the Ground: Selected Writings on Class and Caste (New Delhi: Navayana Publishing); pp 487, Rs 550.

Balakrishnan, Vijayalakshmi (2011); Growing Up and Away: Narratives of Indian Childhoods, Memory, History, Identity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xii + 240, Rs 695.

Bang, Peter Fibiger and C A Bayly, ed. (2011); Tributary Empires in Global History (England: Palgrave Macmillan); pp xiii + 294, £ 19.99.

Barik, R K (2011); Saffron Regime: Ideology, Liberal Intelligentsia and Fear (Delhi: Shipra Publications); pp x + 200, Rs 550.

Bayly, C A, Vijayendra Rao, Simon Szreter and Michael Woolcock, ed. (2011); History, Historians Development Policy (Manchester: Manchester University Press); pp xii + 276, price not indicated.

Behal, Rana, Alice Mah and Babacar Fall, ed. (2011);

Rethinking Work: Global Historical and Sociological Perspectives (New Delhi: Tulika Books); pp xv

+ 182, Rs 400.

Bhambhri, C P (2011); Congress-Led Coalition Government: Crisis to Crisis (Delhi: Shipra Publications); pp 242, Rs 650.

Economic Political Weekly

december 17, 2011

caste and the question of sanitation/scavengers only at the level of the individual and not as a problem of the structure. Therefore the state has looked for scavengers to rehabilitate. If one views the issue from the perspective of structure, then it is easy to see that it is the non-scavengers who need rehabilitation. The social disabilities that come with scavenging/sanitation can only be eradicated by a large-scale reformation of the caste hindu society.

“As long as there will be a metal trash can in Rameshwari’s hands”, noted one Balmiki poet, “the democracy of my nation will be an insult” (Valmiki 1991: 16-17). The tsc may offer “pride” while squatting with dignity but scavengers will still experience and endure ignominy.

Ravichandaran Bathran ( is a research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

Books Received

Bhattacharya, Sabyasachi, ed. (2011); Approaches to History: Essays in Indian Historiography (Delhi: Primus Books); pp viii + 366, Rs 1,095.

Bhattacharyya, Krishnachandra (2011); Implications of the Philosophy of Kant (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp x + 218, Rs 695.

Brock, Lothar, Hans-Henrik Holm, Georg Sorensen and Michael Stohl (2011); Fragile States: Violence and the Failure of Intervention (Cambridge: Polity Press); pp viii + 186, £ 13.99.

Dasgupta, Buroshiva (compiled) (2011); Market Media and Democracy (Kolkata with Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata: Progressive Publishers); pp 82, Rs 180.

Dastidar, Krishnendu Ghosh, Hiranya Mukhopadhyay and Uday Bhanu Sinha, ed. (2011); Dimensions of Economic Theory and Policy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xiii + 370, Rs 850.

Dube, Saurabh, ed. (2011); Handbook of Modernity in South Asia: Modern Makeovers (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xii + 276, Rs 750.

Ghosh, Bishnupriya (2011); Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular (Durham: Duke University Press); pp xiii

+ 383, $25.95 (paper).

Green, Nile (2011); Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xvi + 327, Rs 995.

Hausner, Sondra L (2011); Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xii + 247, Rs 395.

Isaacson, Walter (2011); Steve Jobs, Hachette India, pp xix + 630, Rs 799.

Jain, Devaki and Diane Elson, ed. (2011); Harvesting Feminist Knowledge for Public Policy: Rebuilding Progress (New Delhi in association with IDRC, Ottawa: Sage Publications); pp xlvi + 347, Rs 795.

John, Wilson (2011); The Caliphate’s Soldiers: The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s Long War (New Delhi: Amaryllis); pp xxxi + 295, Rs 595.

Kalpagam, U (2011); Gender and Development in India: Current Issues (Jaipur: Rawat Publications); pp 248, Rs 695.

vol xlvi no 51


Ambedkar, B R (1982): Writings and Speeches, Volume 2, Government of Maharashtra, Pune.

– (1989): Writings and Speeches, Volume 5, Government of Maharashtra, Pune.

Ambedkar, B R: Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability: Social, Chapter 1, Section IV, available at 23.%20Essay%20on%20Untouchables%20and %20Untouchability_Social.htm#c01 (accessed 1 November 2011)

B R Ambedkar, D (1990): What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Vol 9, Government of Maharashtra, Pune.

Buhler, G (translator) (2004): The Laws of Manu (New Delhi: Cosmo Publication).

Gandhi, M K (1932): “Note of 21 August 1932”, Collected Works, Vol 50 (New Delhi: GOI, 1958 onwards).

Kaviraj, Gangadhar Kabi Ratna, ed. (1883): Manu Samhita by Rishi Manu (with Pramadabhanjan tika) Baharampur, Bengal.

Prasad, V (2000): Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Ramasamy, G (2005): India Stinking (Chennai: Navayana). Sharma, Mukul (2006): “The Making of Moral Authority”, Economic Political Weekly, 20 May. Valmiki, Om Prakash (1991): “Jharuwali”, Sadiyon ka Santap, Dehra Dun, Philphal.

Khan, Syed Ahmed (2011); A Voyage to Modernism (Delhi: Primus Books); pp xi + 252, Rs 950.

Kishore, Adarsh, Michael Debabrata Patra and Partha Ray (2011); The Global Economic Crisis through an Indian Looking Glass (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xx + 318, Rs 795.

Mukherjee, Rila, ed. (2011); Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism (Delhi: Primus Books); pp xv + 502, Rs 1,395.

Nair, Janaki (2011); Mysore Modern: Rethinking the Region under Princely Rule (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press); pp x + 357, $27.50 (paperback).

Noorani, A G (2011); Challenges to Civil Rights Guarantees in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xiv + 283, Rs 695.

Pati, Biswamoy, ed. (2011); Bal Gangadhar Tilak: Popular Readings (Delhi: Primus Books); pp ix + 116, Rs 595.

Prabhakara, M S (2011); Looking Back into the Future: Identity Insurgency in Northeast India (New Delhi: Routledge); pp xxvi + 286, Rs 795.

Santhakumar, V (2011); Economic Analysis of Institutions: A Practical Guide (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xi + 191, Rs 550.

Schiffrin, Andre (2011); The Business of Words (New Delhi: Navayana Publishing); pp 296, Rs 295.

Sidhu, Aman and Inderjit Singh Jaijee (2011); Debt and Death in Rural India: The Punjab Story (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xx + 335, Rs 750.

Simms, Brendan and D J B Trim, ed. (2011); Humanitarian Intervention: A History (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xiv + 408, Rs 995.

Singh, Pashaura, ed. (2011); Sikhism in Global Context (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xvii + 281, Rs 745.

Sridhar, Varadharajan (2011); The Telecom Revolution in India: Technology, Regulation and Policy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xviii + 342, Rs 750.

Teitelbaum, Emmanuel (2011); Mobilizing Restraint: Democracy and Industrial Conflict in Post-Reform South Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press); pp xx + 220, $24.95.

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top