The Human Cost of the Obsession with a 'Swachh Bharat'

The Swachh Bharat Mission’s unthinking obsession with ‘behavioural change’ is taking an unconscionable toll on the poorest.

A sign condemning open defecation. Credit: Sachin Rao

A sign condemning open defecation. Credit: Sachin Rao

In an opinion piece in the Indian Express on July 31, Naina Lal Kidwai, writing as the chair of the India Sanitation Coalition, gave a glowing midterm review to the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The SBM is deemed to have made significant gains in sanitation because it focuses on actually stopping open defecation, making communities open defecation free (ODF), as opposed to just educating communities and supporting the construction of toilets, as has been done in the past. This emphasis on outcomes is said to be backed by concerted pressure from the very top and the transmission of authority and accountability all the way down the bureaucratic chain to the villages, where nigrani samitis are empowered ‘to ensure that no individual from the village resorts to open defecation’. Kidwai’s observation about the single-minded obsession with which the SBM has been conducted is probably accurate but the actual outcomes of such a crusade deserve closer inspection.

Here’s what I learnt from Ghodach village in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. The administration had a clear target – make the village, and eventually the entire district, ODF. This target was backed with the precise data of the 565 families who had no toilets. The administration was indeed empowered, so much so that the block level officers have issued an official notice to ration shops to withhold grains from any family not certified as having a toilet at home. The nigrani committee (inspection committee) is comprised of elected officials, government employees and other influencers; in short the most powerful people in a feudal setting. Their work so far has been to spread terror. Their message is that toilets must be built at all costs. Those who do not do so will not receive rations and possibly lose other benefits such as pensions.

The targets of this mission in ‘behavioural change’ were the village’s poorest people who are in no circumstance to build or use a toilet. They are socially, politically and economically marginalised. They typically have no land, no assets and no savings. Their meagre income comes from irregular and hazardous daily labour in the nearby mines. The Public Distribution System grain makes the difference from hunger and starvation. They were told that the first step towards a working toilet was a pit to house their septic tanks. Fearing starvation, these families gave up daily wages to dig into the hard rock strata that their village sits on. The rock proved too hard and many simply gave up half way; others took debts to hire a JCB machine to blast through the rock. Even for those who have dug the pits, building a working toilet will cost at least Rs 20,000-30,000 more. No one has any idea where the money will come from. Even if a toilet is built, there is not enough water in this village to drink, let alone to maintain a toilet.

Villagers are being forced to dig toilets in rocky terrain. Credit: Sachin Rao

Villagers are being forced to dig toilets in rocky terrain. Credit: Sachin Rao

Ghodach is now littered with half-dug holes. The ration continues for now, but the villagers live in terror that their sole means of sustenance may be stopped at any time. No one knows what happens next in this impasse. The neighbouring village of Rama provides a clue as to how this may be resolved.

Realising that there was no way that the last 100 households in Rama would build toilets, under immense pressure from their seniors, the local officials declared the village ODF and spent Rs 50,000 on a celebratory function where congratulations were handed all around. They then painted a bold sign in the centre of the village that said anyone found defecating in the open would be prosecuted under various sections of the penal code. These are not isolated observations; newspaper reports document a range of coercive practices in a variety of states in the name of the SBM.

There is no doubt that Ms Kidwai does not subscribe to such inhumane and grossly unconstitutional outcomes. Such misplaced endorsements come from not accounting for the deep inequities of the Indian society and the vast difference in the way the Indian state is experienced by those with and without power. The weak have no ability to defend themselves against the excesses of the state. Therefore, when we empower, incentivise and focus the state upon a single objective that intrudes upon the lives of the poorest, we essentially encourage the oppression of those who have no capacity to resist.

In such an environment, it is not enough for the powerful to just be well intentioned and engaged. We must develop a deep appreciation of how power is distributed and plays out in the communities within which we seek to operate. Despite the current trend of ‘keep politics out of it,’ we must bring politics back into our awareness and perspectives before we act. Without this, we run the risk of becoming prisoners of our narrow objectives and unwittingly endorsing illiberal agendas that in no way reflects the world we envision.

Sachin Rao is a political activist. He works with the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sanghatan.