For Many Indians, the Right to Sanitation Is Coming at the Cost of Other Human Rights

It should be axiomatic that one human right ought not to be realised by violating other human rights. Yet, the Indian experience tells us that that is not as obvious as it may seem.

Last week, on September 25, two young Dalit children were beaten to death in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh for defecating in the open. This isn’t the first time the idea of “cleanliness” and the right to sanitation have in fact enforced prejudice – based on caste and class – and resulted in violence, even killing. In this excerpt from Usha Ramanathan’s Foreword to The Right to Sanitation in India, she talks about that link.


The century turned, and another human right gained recognition. In its early years, sanitation found honourable mention in the United Nations General Comment No. 15 along with the right to water, which underlined that “[o]ver one billion persons lack access to a basic water supply, while several billion do not have access to adequate sanitation, which is the primary cause of water contamination and diseases linked to water”. At that point, sanitation was largely seen through the potential of faeces to contaminate water. In the decade that followed, the human right to sanitation found itself in the interstices of the right to health, the right to adequate housing, and the right to an adequate standard of living, alongside the right to water.

There are few who would doubt the value of safe, accessible and hygienic sanitation. There has been too much silence around sanitation, and for far too long. Progressive recognition of this right in the international arena has acted as a prompt for states to place sanitation squarely on their agenda. In India, the recognition of the importance of sanitation started earlier, in 1999, with the Total Sanitation Campaign – renamed the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan – with the goal of ending open defecation by 2017. In 2014, when a new government was installed at the Centre after the general election, among its early interventions in public policy was the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign). The pressure has been building up since then, with the prime minister personally putting his heft behind the campaign, with reward and punishment pursuing statistics around an acronym minted in the 2000s: ODF (Open Defecation Free).

It should be axiomatic that one human right ought not to be realised by violating other human rights. Yet, the Indian experience tells us that that is not as obvious as it may seem.

Also read: What the MP Children’s Murders Tell Us About Caste and Cleanliness

The first public shock about the calamitous effect of prejudice in the context of sanitation is recorded in a 1996 report of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)-Delhi. Dilip, a 19-year-old young man visiting Delhi to witness the Republic Day celebrations in January 1995, was “beaten, kicked and forced to run around and squat by constables of Delhi police. Dilip collapsed and died on the spot”. The provocation: that he was from a nearby slum and appeared to have used the park to defecate. In the ensuing conflict that erupted when the police attempted to remove Dilip’s body, and irate slum dwellers resisted, the police fired, immediately killing three, one more person died subsequently, 16 were injured and 123 arrested.

In interviews to the press, the additional commissioner of police defended the firing as an “inevitable and necessary intervention in a conflict between the ‘haves’ (the residents of Ashok Vihar – a residential colony) and the ‘have-nots’ (the jhuggi dwellers) – sooner or later this had to happen”. The police position on this episode was summed up in the report as follows:

  1. Slums have grown in Delhi;
  2. It is not possible to provide amenities to slum dwellers;
  3. Therefore, tensions are a necessary result;
  4. The police is not responsible for such a situation;
  5. But they are forced to intervene to preserve law and order.

The Right to Sanitation in India: Critical Perspectives
Edited by Philippe Cullet, Sujith Koonan, and Lovleen Bhullar
Oxford University Press, 2019

The PUDR report sets out a telling statistic:

“…the Slum Wing provides one tap for every hundred jhuggis and one toilet seat for every 25 jhuggis. It admits that one toilet seat ought to be provided for every 7 jhuggis. However, in Shaheed Sukhdev Nagar there are no toilets, for roughly 5,000 families. The Slum Wing cites a combination of factors as ‘cause’ including ‘a lack of space and the reluctance of the railways.”

This incident is teeming with multiple violations of human rights – to dignity and safety while doing what must be done; police brutality; arrest and detention; and the taking away of life itself.

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

Recent years have seen a return of this attitude of intolerance, accompanied by public shaming, exclusion and punishment. The focus has moved away from dignity to shame, and from provision to punishment. Consider these representative incidents:

  • On June 17, 2017, newspapers reported that a man had been beaten to death by municipal council employees when “he tried to stop them from clicking photographs of women defecating in the open. He was allegedly kicked, punched and beaten with a stick. He died later at a hospital”. This happened when the officials were on their morning tour of the area.
  • The cruelty takes different forms. In October 2017, an IAS officer in Maharashtra reportedly “garlanded and felicitated” two women labourers while they were returning from defecating in the open. He then sent the pictures to the media. The state government ignored demands for action against the officer.
  • The state has acquired a reputation for adopting extreme measures in its keenness to end open defecation. Earlier in the year, the state government of Maharashtra set up what were called ‘Good Morning Squads’ to spot and crack down on those defecating in the open. As a squad member explained to the reporter: “it is necessary to create fear among people relieving themselves in the open. But we normally have to just shout or whistle to get people to run away”.
  • Public shaming, punishing, threatening and inducing fear have become part of state practice in ridding itself of what it sees as the shame of open defecation. Others imitate these tactics. So, a TV channel started the following campaign: Name and Shame Campaign; #EndOpenDefecation; Blow the Whistle on Open Defecation; Send in pictures at …
  • A shift has been made from the human right to sanitation to the state’s sense of shame and ambition to erase open defecation. The lawless lengths which may be reached is evident from newspaper reports which list ways in which punishment is meted out, such as in the case of the state of Rajasthan where:
    • Six villagers were arrested in Bhilwara for defecating in the open;
    • Subsidised grains were denied under the public distribution system (PDS) to families without toilets in Jhalawar district;
    • In Jahazpur sub-division of Bhilwara district, power supply was disconnected in a village where only 19 percent of households had toilets; and
    • In Karauli, women teachers were asked to mark attendance from the field by clicking selfies while they prevented villagers, men and women, from defecating in the open.
    • In Puducherry, Lt Governor Kiran Bedi tweeted that subsidised rice in the PDS would be given only in villages certified to be ODF. Public outrage caused her to backtrack swiftly, while making a pitch for “cleanliness”.

This idea of the ‘clean’ has shifted the focus from the concerns of those below the poverty line to the priorities and prejudices of those wielding power. Law supports none of these actions. Quite to the contrary, the National Food Security Act, 2013 creates statutory entitlements to food, which are thwarted by the imposition of these unsanctioned penalties. Even arrest and detention have been taken out of the idea of the rule of law.

Usha Ramanathan is a legal researcher.

#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.