Tearing up the Constitution to Wipe India Clean: How Haryana is Trying to End Open Defecation

The social objective is being converted into a writ that all must obey, with the state seeing citizens who are forced by poverty into open defecation as unsightly and inconvenient aberrations who must be bent and broken if need be.

Credit: Reuters

Rather than fund toilets for the poor, the Swachh Bharat cess is paying to implement an agenda that borders upon despotic. Credit: Reuters

An early morning walk in the Badagaon village in Haryana’s Karnal district reveals an unusual site. The government apparatus in the village is out in full strength and in a state of alertness that is not commonly associated with sarkari karmacharis. Anganwadi workers, ASHAs, school teachers, health officials, secretarial staff and elected panchayat representatives have all been up since the crack of dawn, bundled up against the cold and armed with whistles, torches and the occasional stick. They man posts at various points in the village under the watchful eyes of senior district and block officers. What is their daily mission? To locate those defecating in the open, blow whistles, shine torches and proceed to accost, shame, cajole and intimidate such people so that they would feel compelled to change their morning routine.

Conversations with the victims of these shamings and messages circulating on social media suggest these encounters are far from benign. Verbal abuse, pictures clicked in compromising positions and degrading treatment are common occurrences. One particularly disturbing video shows a government officer full of righteous indignation making a terrified youngster hold his ears, do sit-ups and promise never to go in the open again. The young boy is then grabbed by the hand and moved into brighter light and made to repeat this act of dehumanising submission for the benefit of the camera. In addition to the vigilantism of the local officialdom, those defecating in the open are subject to a Rs 500 fine that state officials have ‘facilitated’ the local panchayat to enact. This is not the work of a stray over-enthusiastic official. This is the frontline of the Haryana government’s systematic assault upon those who stand inconveniently in the path of their march towards declaring the state free of open defecation.

A youth being punished Credit: Sachin Rao

A government officer is seen punishing a youngster. Credit: Sachin Rao

The nearly 100 families in Badagaon who are the victims of this daily intimidation are the poorest and most desperate residents of the village. They include destitute people, widows and aged couples with no one to support them. They are almost all Dalits and daily-wage labourers with no land, no assets, no saved money and no steady source of income. Their houses are invariably compact hovels of a few hundred square-feet, usually in the most squalid quarter where the village’s drain and garbage accumulate. Even a few minutes spent visiting their homes and speaking with them makes it quite obvious that they defecate in the open not because they are anti-social, unaware or criminal, but because the crushing circumstances of their lives leave them with no other option.

Some, like a father who wakes his children before dawn and cycles many kilometres from the village, are trying to find a way around the intimidation. But for most, the daily abuse is having an effect. Desperate attempts to build a toilet are now common in every house. These toilets are usually without walls and share the tiny space inside the house with chullahs, stored drinking water, sleeping infants and scattered schoolbooks. The effluents from these toilets flow into a pit dug in the middle of the house that is covered with a cement lid. With government subsidy for constructing toilets drying up in the last two years, these efforts are being funded by loans from local moneylenders. These toilets might get these families out of the village fields but not with out damaging their health, finances and self-esteem along the way.

These events are perverse on several fronts. A laudable social objective is being converted into a writ that all must comply with, irrespective of cost or consequence. In the enforcement of the writ, the state is viewing citizens who are forced by poverty into open defecation as unsightly and inconvenient aberrations who must be bent and broken if need be. Verbal abuse, fear, humiliation, intimidation and financial threats are being deployed as instruments in this subjugation of the most vulnerable people in society. Government servants are deploying these instruments to terrorise the very citizens they are meant to serve. Finally, rather than fund toilets for the poor, the Swachh Bharat cess most of us are shelling out is paying to implement an agenda that borders upon despotic. It seems as if the Haryana government is seeking to wipe India clean with the ripped up pages of the constitution.

The Haryana government has mistaken a democratic mandate to represent, protect and serve every citizen as a license to impose, by force if necessary, its norms upon every Haryanvi. The irony is that this myopic view of democratic governance leaves the state government incapable of seeing the one road to achieve its Swachh Bharat objectives. If at all they had been asked, the poor would have told the government that the only way to ensure that Haryana is free of open defecation is to make sure every Haryanvi has a house and an income big enough to accommodate a toilet.

The ubiquitous logo of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is the round glasses worn by a man whose talisman in life said, “…Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” It is safe to declare that the actions of the Haryana government are completely devoid of the spirit of this talisman. The least they can do is to spare the memory of the Mahatma and drop the rounded glasses from its posters.

Sachin Rao is a political activist who works with the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sangathan.