What Does the Right to Sanitation Mean in India?

At the launch of 'Right to Sanitation in India: Critical Perspectives', panelists talked about how caste and gender necessarily intersect with the issue.

New Delhi: While the issue of sanitation has been much discussed in India recently, particularly in light of Narendra Modi’s pet project the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country is still far from finding sustainable and safe solutions to the problem.

In their new book Right to Sanitation in India: Critical Perspectives, editors and contributors Philippe Cullet, Sujith Koonan and Lovleen Bhullar bring to light various aspects associated with the internationally recognised right to sanitation and how it plays out in India. Specifically, the essays focus on the grave problem of implementation of sanitation laws on the ground, in addition to how issues of sanitation cannot be dissociated from gender and caste, and practices like manual scavenging.

On July 10, 2019, Centre for Policy Research organised a book launch for the 400-page text at the India International Centre in New Delhi. People from all walks of life including journalists, students, lawyers and those who work on sanitation attended the event. Former Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur, legal researcher Usha Ramanathan and  historian Awadhendra Sharan were on the panel. 

The event started with Yamini Aiyar, head of CPR, acknowledging the progress made by the Swachh Bharat Mission while highlighting that the right to sanitation is something that all humans inherently possess instead of something that is only now being pushed by policy makers. 

Also read: Understanding the Problems of India’s Sanitation Workers

Justice Lokur spoke about the limitations of using only a legalistic lens to examine the issue of sanitation. He gave the example of how authorities in Delhi denied the existence of manual scavengers in the capital because according to the text, manual scavengers are people who carry human excreta on their head but in Delhi, these people carried it on their side. He stressed the importance of people like the book’s editors and contributors who actively work as or with manual scavengers and are intimately familiar with the problems they face. 

Ramanathan and Sharan both talked about how caste and gender necessarily intersect with the issue of manual scavenging, and hence with the right to sanitation. While Sharan appreciated the book for its scope and breadth of the topic, he added that “environmental issues remained marginal” in the text and the interplay of sanitation, manual scavenging and the environment is another crucial research area that needs to be worked on. 

The audience too asked crucial questions. Bhasha, a journalist and writer based in Patna, said that “shit, caste and patriarchy” are deeply entrenched within this issue and it is saddening that people who work in toilets are deprived of toilets themselves. 

When a college student suggested that students should learn about this issue through talks and discussions so that they can do something about it, Ramanathan responded by saying that although it is important to learn, it is crucial that we do not infantilise the poor and impose our own ideas and solutions as privileged students, journalists or policy makers upon them. She spoke about how for a long time journalists actually did not report sewer deaths until there was a movement and a Supreme Court Case about it. So, Ramanathan suggested that we don’t take away the agency of safai karamcharis and listen to what they suggest as solutions for their own issues. 

Kudrat Wadhwa is a graduate in Anthropology from Brown University and an editorial intern with The Wire.

#Grit is an initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy.