Even If Data Is Legit, Swachh Bharat Will Have Failed Its Open Defecation Goal

The Indian approach to ridding the country of open defecation has been highly centralised and so disempowering that children are being killed.

On October 2, the government of India is due to announce that the country is “open defecation free”, based on a central-government programme that provides funds to build toilets.

Here is a climate change perspective on why this is not just a lie but also makes open defecation hard to eradicate.

There is good reason to suggest that the government’s numbers are faulty and that building toilets is not enough. Others have argued this point and have done the research. I want to look at how, even if the government’s data was right, it is a failure.

The crux of the matter is water, its availability and the most crucial impact of climate change: floods and droughts. Even if every individual has access to a toilet, the toilets have to have water to be cleaned and to function.

Every person who has seen an old municipality toilet in small-town or rural India knows this problem. An unclean toilet is worse than no toilet at all, a breeding ground for disease. Crucially no Central scheme can address this. Water and sanitation are local issues.

By overriding the authority of state-level and municipal actors, the Swachh Bharat scheme has weakened the very institutions on which successful sanitation rests. The reason why this is important is that water, and the preservation of water bodies, is a municipal issue.

For years, the power of municipal actors has been overridden by state-level, and central politicians, leaving urbanisation a disaster across India. Even our wealthiest cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru – are disasters during the rains.

The core problem is that those that are responsible have no power and so citizens cannot hold anybody accountable. A striking example is the cleaning of Nainital Lake, which happened because the Uttarakhand high court was moved there, and judges acted.

Also read: Dalits, Adivasis Most Likely to Face Coercion to Stop Open Defecation, Study Finds

It required the personal intervention of a high court to save the precious wetland economy on which all of Nainital depended. Not every small town, where mismanaged urbanisation is choking water resources, is likely to have a high court.

The other aspect of the climate change issue is simple. Warmer air holds more water, which means it requires more water in the air before it rains, and when it rains, more water falls in short periods. In other words: longer periods of drought mixed with intense rainfall.

When large cities like Chennai run out of water, how much water will there be for cleaning toilets? When we send trains of water to drought-hit Maharashtra, do you think sanitation will be a priority or survival? Will we be open-defecation-free during a drought?

Then there are the floods, happening across north India at the moment. When flood waters reach toilets, they only spread the filth around. There are toilets designed to deal with it but it is likely none will have been built with funds from the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

This problem is not going away and the government is well aware of it. The IMD reports this year on how far from average the monsoon was are self-explanatory.

Even more, the key decision-makers in power realise that to deal with water issues we have to involve local communities and strengthen local decision-making. But programmes like Swachh Bharat weaken that very thing.

Also read: Behind Mumbai’s Self-Declared ODF Status, Overused, Inadequate and Crumbling Toilets

There are two countries in our neighbourhood with similar per capita incomes and which have done much better: Bhutan and Bangladesh. In both cases, the successes with fighting open defecation came from moving decision-making closer to the people.

Bhutan’s example is striking. To quote at length from The Third Pole (November 2016):

… earlier, when Bhutan’s health monitoring system did not differentiate between sanitary and unsanitary toilets, nor recorded whether toilets were used. Thus overall coverage was misleadingly high at 95%, said Yonzan. In reality…, coverage turned out to be only 58% when measured using improved sanitation.

A basic toilet only separates humans from excreta, but not necessarily hygienically, whereas “improved sanitation facilities include those with sewer connections, septic system connections, pour-flush latrines, compost toilet, ventilated improved pit latrines and pit latrines with a slab or covered pit”.

Bangladesh’s example is also important because the key to fighting open defecation is not just empowering local actors but also women. To quote from another report in The Third Pole (September 2017):

“Women in rural areas are vulnerable when it comes to the use of latrines,” said Islam. “Brac’s participatory rural appraisal started including both men and women. This helped us know for sure where new latrines are needed and what their design should be [according to gender-specific needs], because it is often unsafe for women to walk far to use the toilet.” … Brac gives leadership training to one male and one female from each community. “Slowly, women have started voicing their opinions and that is very encouraging,” said Islam.

The striking thing about the example of Bangladesh – poorer than us when it declared itself “open-defecation-free” in 2016 (closer to the basic model that Bhutan has surpassed) – is that it was led by an NGO, local government actors and empowered local citizens.

In stark contrast, the Indian approach has been highly centralised and so disempowering that children are being killed. Whatever we say on October 2, the shit is going to stick to us for some time.

Omair Ahmad is an author. His last novel, Jimmy the Terrorist, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and won the Crossword Award. Twitter: @omairtahmad. The content of this article was originally published as a Twitter thread on September 29, 2019, and has been reproduced here with permission.

#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. 

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