How ‘Swachh Bharat’ is Being Forced Upon Chhattisgarh Villagers

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a mechanically-run government programme without a strong economic and environmental foundation and accompanying consciousness about what toilet cleanliness means.


Instead of making people literate, conscious and capable about cleanliness the government is using the ODF programme as a weapon against the people. Credit: PTI

The names of villages and individuals in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

Dhamtari (Chhattisgarh): In the Dhanbahara village in the Dhamtari district in Chhattisgarh, a labourer belonging to the Kamar tribe – a scheduled tribe – drew a danger sign on the door of the toilet that had been built near his home. Commenting on this, another young man, Churaman, said, “These toilets are a symbol of danger for Kamars. We are forest dwellers, the forest is our home. Why are these people forcing us like this? Why do they not let us live our own lives?”

Churaman was referring to the members of the Nigrani Samiti, a vigilance committee formed in his panchayat as part of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission). As a part of the committee work, some residents were given uniforms and whistles, and were required to roam the outskirts of the villages during the times when people regularly went into the open to defecate.

A danger sign painted by a villager on a toilet door in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh. Credit: Ajay T.G.

A danger sign painted by a villager on a toilet door in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh. Credit: Ajay T.G.

I was alerted to this new development when I heard the incessant whistling starting from around 4 a.m. until 8 a.m. If a person was ‘caught’ defecating openly, they would be fined Rs 500. Not surprisingly, no Kamar was part of this committee.

When I asked one committee member, Chuttan Singh, why Kamars did not use the toilets that had been built and what was being done about it, he responded, “When even the government failed to reform them, then how can we? What can we do? We [vigilance committee members] do not even know when and where the Kamars go out to defecate. They do not have a set time or place. They go anywhere in the jungle and anytime of the day to do their job. Other villagers are not like them. They have discipline – mornings and evenings at set times and set places.”

For the Kamar community in this panchayat, the open defecation-free (ODF) programme now almost feels like being held at gunpoint.

In order to ensure that the toilets are built and used, the government has apparently given permission to its local units to use ‘no-holds-barred’ strategies. As the villagers here put it, the government asked them to use saam daam dand bhed (reason, lure, punishment, divisiveness). However, it is the dand (punishment) variety that is most commonly used from withholding salaries of panchayat secretaries who fail to build toilets in their villages to preventing villagers from using their ration cards if they are not using the toilets. The campaign is intent on putting up as many ODF boards at the entrance to the villages as possible.

There is so much fear among the villagers that the Kamars of Pipalvahi village make their children sit on the toilet or sprinkle some water on it so that when the sahib log come to inspect, they see that the ODF toilets are being used.

There has hardly been any attempt to consider the practices of people like the Kamars, nor has there been any attempt to look at how their existing practices vary. There exists an experiential understanding of cleanliness and health among the people that has been cultivated over several generations and it cannot be changed in a single day with a punishing rod.

There is a growing sense of resentment among the people about this kind of change. They believe that some officials are forcing them into it and are developing the ODF toilet programme for their own selfish benefits. Hence, the women of Dhanbahara village have angrily announced that they will collectively boycott the ODF toilets since, after several months of the programme being inaugurated, they are yet to be paid the promised Rs 1,800 for building the toilets.

Kamars are not the only ones feeling the pain of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Many villagers from other social groups – particularly the elderly – have been hit. Kankabti, a 55-year-old woman from Mundrakasa village has been coerced into using the toilets by the members of the vigilance committee. She says that while in the toilet, she feels like she is inside a pucca ghar (finished house) whereas her house is only made of clay (kaccha ghar). She is not in the habit of sitting in that position and is being forced into using the toilets.

Rahambati, a 60-year-old woman from Dhanbahara village, used to go to the forest before dawn to defecate. Now, due to the vigilance committee, she has to wait until much later and go towards the fields on the pretext of work and in a surreptitious manner. Naram Singh from Gudra village is a 70-year-old man who has never used a toilet in his entire life. Once, when he went to Dhamtari town to attend a wedding, he had to cut his stay short since he was unable to use the toilet. He says that “now the whistle-blowers in the village have placed restrictions on going out for defecation.”

For someone who is accustomed to ‘going out’ every day between 4-5 a.m., Singh now has to ‘hold on’ until 9-10 a.m. and then surreptitiously go to the fields under the pretext of farming.

There is a fear about ODF toilets throughout the region. Instead of making people literate, conscious and capable about cleanliness and by using ODFs as a weapon against the people, the government has created a dilemma for them. Apart from impinging on the freedom and dignity of the voiceless poor, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan activities often seem to bring ‘solutions’ to problems – of health and resource depletion – in ways that ominously could be worse than the existing conditions. Consider two of these – water and health.

Villagers distressed by ODF vigilance committees’ surveillance point out that whereas an individual would use one bottle of water (about one litre) to wash after open defecation, the new toilets require at least one bucket (about 10-12 litres) of water. This means that a family of six which would have used no more than six to eight litres of water per day for the toilet would now use close to 60-80 litres of water per day. Before the ODF, the panchayat of Dhanbahara – with a population of 1,500 – would have used about 2,200 litres per day, whereas now they will need to use ten times that amount.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the water used in the ODFs also directly pollutes the water table since due to the abysmally poor quality of construction of the pipes and the pit (small volume and without any connection to a treatment plant), the water used in these toilets goes directly into the ground. This also pollutes the nearby wells from which villagers draw water for drinking and other household uses. We may imagine what this means for water consumption and ground water quality when 20,378 ODF villages are being set up in Chhattisgarh.

The story does not end there. Little effort has been made to communicate information on toilet cleanliness. Many – villagers and urban folk alike – tend to think that the use of water is enough to keep a toilet clean. There is little awareness of the potential for communicable diseases from improper toilet maintenance. Further, several people are not aware of the appropriate cleaning agents – including chemicals – that must be used nor do they have the ability to do so regularly. This is a population that has, after all, stopped eating dal since it became too expensive for them and where women do not buy sanitary pads and instead use pieces of cloth. The consequences of infectious diseases from unclean ODFs will be borne the most by children and women, especially pregnant women.

Another big anxiety of villagers here is about the life of these toilets. They have been told that it would last for five years, but they expect it to barely last for two. The construction materials used for the toilets are of such low quality that some become unfit even before their first use. The pits, for example, do not seem likely to last even until the next monsoons. Not surprisingly, villagers are not ready to rebuild the toilets.

Broken pipe of an ODF toilet in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh. Credit: Ajay T.G.

Broken pipe of an ODF toilet in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh. Credit: Ajay T.G.

Meanwhile, forest department officials are using this opportunity – of restricting people from using surrounding areas for defecation – to enclose surrounding forest land. In fact, there is now a directive to the district senior administrators to plant tulsi and fig plants in the areas where open defecation occurs – a feeble attempt at leveraging the sacred beliefs of local people. In such a situation, where would villagers go once their ODF toilets have run their course? Any vacant land in the countryside would then become the open defecation destination for villagers – making villages look very much like the urban worker colonies or towns very close to big cities.

Cleanliness is no doubt imperative, as is good health. For centuries we have thought and conversed about this and even made some changes. For this reason, we need to be sure that any such programme needs to have people’s participation and their trust and is not built upon coercion and fear. Our society needs to be vigilant about such a problem. We can ask, is the campaign around ODF India and toilets actually for cleanliness and health? Is it producing the clean and healthy India that it envisions? Do toilets themselves ensure cleanliness and health? Or, are Swachh Bharat Abhiyan activities equivalent to sweeping up the dirt in one’s house only to deposit it under one’s pillow?

The ODF toilets are a part of a long history of ‘civilising mission’ winds that have blown over the Kamars of this region and subjected them to the condescension of a self-styled class of the so-called ‘civilised.’ This class views people like the Kamars and other working rural and illiterate poor as uncivilised and indifferent towards health and cleanliness.

Consequently, the ODF programme has transformed into a conspiracy of the so-called ‘civilised’ class of people since its hubris and conceit does not allow any representation of precisely those for whose welfare this programme is designed. It now remains as a sign of the paternalist game of politics by the state. Without a strong economic and environmental foundation and accompanying consciousness about what ‘cleanliness’ means, a mechanically-run government programme such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan can prove to be a curse for the country and its citizens.

Ajay T.G. is an independent filmmaker and research assistant for a long-term study on development interventions and agrarian change in Chhattisgarh.

This article has been translated from Hindi by Balmurli Natrajan and Suraj Jacob.