Don't Let Swachh Bharat Abhiyan Involuntarily Violate Fundamental Rights, Says UN Official

While United Nations special rapporteur Leo Heller's report argued that the question of water supply and drinking water had also been overlooked, the Centre sharply rejected these claims.

New Delhi: United Nations special rapporteur Leo Heller on Friday urged the Centre to ensure that its emphasis on constructing toilets under the Clean India Mission or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan “should not overshadow the focus of drinking water provision for all” and that it “should not involuntarily contribute to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those specific caste-affected groups engaged in manual scavenging, or those who are marginalised such as ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas.”

Winding up his visit to India, which has come at a time when the mission is at a crucial juncture of eliminating open defecation, the UN special rapporteur called on all levels of the government of India to incorporate a human rights perspective in their national programmes on water and sanitation.

“Everywhere I went, I saw the logo of the Clean India Mission – Gandhi’s glasses. In its third year of implementation, now is a critical time to replace the lens of those glasses with the human rights lens,” he said.

Responding to this charge, the Centre, in a press release issued on Friday, said: “”Gandhiji’s glasses, the unique logo of the Swachh Bharat Mission, epitomise core human rights principles.” The government’s response was sharp and the Centre even attacked Heller questioning the veracity of his on the ground that they were based on information from third parties and a private organisation.

“The Government has the highest commitment to human rights in general and particularly in the water supply and sanitation sectors and strongly rejects the claims in the UNSR’s report and press statements,” a statement issued by the Centre said.

Water supply

Heller’s report also focused pointing out that the Modi government should focus on water issues. As the Centre is striving to eliminate open defecation through the construction of individual and community toilets and by encouraging toilet usage, Heller said: “Eliminating open defecation is not only about building latrines, but requires adequate methods for behaviour change, and sufficient water supply is a pre-requisite for the sustainable and safe use of adequate, low-cost latrines.”

Though the government has set a target of making India “open defecation free” by October 2, 2019 and has constructed nearly 53 million toilets in the rural areas alone over the last three years, the UN special rapporteur cautioned that “the Indian Government’s emphasis on constructing toilets should not overshadow the focus of drinking water provision for all and it should not involuntarily contribute to violating fundamental rights of others.”

He said the right to water and the right to sanitation are distinct but integrated rights. Just as water and sanitation services go hand in hand, the rights to access water and sanitation must be addressed as a package.

Heller, who is the special rapporteur on human rights, safe drinking water and sanitation, also said that India needed to provide sanitation facilities that were not shared with other households and access to safe and continuous drinking water in order to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. “To achieve this, considerable efforts will be required, in particular to provide individual households solutions to those who currently rely on community toilets and public taps,” he added.

During his two-week official visit to India, Heller met with representatives of the central, state and local government, as well as members of civil society organisations in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal. He also held discussions with a number of residents about their access to essential water and sanitation services and is expected to submit a full report of his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.