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

Misnaming Toilet Building as ‘Swachhata’

The Swachh Bharat Mission outwits rights-based development with lofty statistics.


In an attempt to deal with India’s open defecation problem, the National Democratic Alliance government (read, Narendra Modi) has incentivised double-pit pour-flush toilets through the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Its cost-effectiveness and less hazardous sludge management system in comparison to the conventionally used septic tanks is common knowledge, and official estimates suggest a rapid diffusion of the technology under the mission. Within a span of merely four years (2014–17), household toilet availability has increased from 42% to 64%, with over five lakh villages across 25 states/union territories being declared open defecation free (ODF). But, all is not well behind these impressive numbers. Evidence shows that physical access alone is not enough to ensure usage, so much so that even the ODF-certified areas are not de facto ODF.

The razzmatazz for toilet construction/ODF certification has overshadowed the fact that the essence of universal water and sanitation coverage is derived from the right to life, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. At the same time, India has ratified several international treaties that explicitly recognise the human rights to water and sanitation, and the human rights obligations of the states. Yet, there is no national legislation to protect these rights in the country. These are supported through legal jurisprudence, enabling the states to do just the “minimum” needed for ensuring legal clarity—be it applying aggressive and abusive practices for earning an ODF status, such as revoking of ration cards, electricity services and or shaming/penalising for open defecation, or diverting funds earmarked for education and communication activities for behavioural change to building more toilets.

In such a top-down system, violation of rights is rampant, primarily because of the beneficiaries’ lack of ownership and the consequent lack of accountability of the service providers. For example, while the government vouches for a “safe” sanitation technology, on implementation it may not turn out so due to limited involvement/knowledge of the beneficiary in the decision to build a toilet/choose a technology. A WaterAid study in 2017 found that almost a third of the functional toilets under SBM failed to prevent human contact with faecal matter, either because these have no traps, and/or are located at susceptible distances from drinking water points. From the human rights perspective, sanitation is not only concerned about individual right to use facilities, but also the human rights of other people who can be negatively affected by inappropriate management of sanitary wastes. Though the government has launched the ODF Plus Initiative and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation for waste management in rural and urban areas, the evidence of coverage is confounding. The National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (2017–18) shows 70% of villages as having waste management systems in place, while studies by WaterAid in 2017 and World Health Organization/United Nations Children’s Fund in 2015 found about 30% of the rural households and 9% of urban population, respectively, practising safe disposal of faecal waste.

Notwithstanding the glitches, Modi should be given credit for bringing a socially anathematised issue like “open defecation” to the centre stage of the Indian policy discourse. But, this is a missed opportunity as his mission assumes the usual denial mode towards sanitation in India being more a matter of caste ethos than technology/infrastructure. Building more toilets/introducing alternative sanitation technologies can elicit corporate investments, garner celebrity endorsements and, perhaps, brownie points with voters, too, but it cannot change the mindset that sanitisation is the work of the lower castes. Is his “Swachhata Hi Seva” slogan resonating similar vibes? On the one hand, his writing about the Valmikis that “At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods” reinforces the association of the lower castes with manual scavenging. And, on the other, the construction of toilets without due consideration to sludge disposal and cleaning is indicative of the existence of discriminatory caste-based hiring practices in the government’s own backyard. A report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Leo Heller, in 2017 has identified that the implementation of the SBM “contribute[s] to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those specific caste-affected groups engaged in manual scavenging.”

Discrimination abounds in the implementation of SBM. It not only cuts across caste, but also gender and persons with special requirements. While Heller’s report mentions that the existing infrastructures are unsuitable for persons with disabilities, transpersons, and women, particularly with respect to the menstrual hygiene management of the latter, a study by the Aser Centre (2016) found only 62% schools having functional and usable girls’ toilets. Interestingly, among the numerous international treaties protecting human rights to water and sanitation that India has ratified from time to time are a plethora of agreements for ameliorating any forms of discrimination. But, these agreements, perhaps, only come in handy to project Modi as India’s poster boy of “cleanliness” in the international arena.

Updated On : 15th Oct, 2018


(-) 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