Solving India’s Sanitation Blight – Analysis – Eurasia Review

By Younus Mushtaq Ahmed*

In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India had been granted Open Defecation (ODF) status after his government built over 110 million toilets. The federal government’s flagship program, the Swach Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), was the largest sanitation intervention of its kind in the world.

Its goal was to build toilets to end open defecation and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6.2. The program’s technical approach to solving a social problem—phrased in the language of vikas (development) – camouflages social justice concerns about equitable access to toilets.

Three years after the supposed success of the sanitation intervention, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) repeatedly calls the campaign a “success”. The party now mentions open defecation in the past tense and has moved on to other priorities in the water, sanitation and health sector.

But the BJP conveniently ignores hard data when making statements. In May 2022, the Institute for Population and Health Research released the fifth version of its National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-5). NFHS data provides demographic, population, health, and nutrition information that evaluates the outcomes of federal government social protection programs and informs policy development.

The survey suggests that open defecation is still practiced by one in five households. According to the NFHS-5, 19.4% of the country does not have access to toilets, with 25.9% in rural areas and 6.1% in urban areas. Compared to NFHS-4, these numbers decreased by 54.1% and 10.5%, respectively.

While this is a healthy indicator for a country in which more than 600 million people practiced open defecation in the previous decade, the nation is a long way from achieving ODF status. The actual number of open defecation is likely higher than the NFHS data because the survey assumes that a household member’s response represents the sanitation practices of the entire household. Also missing is a gender breakdown of health habits and data on homelessness.

For a country where open defecation is an accepted norm in rural areas, the government deserves credit for shaping the public imagination in favor of Swach Bharat. But the exclusion of caste – the rigid social stratification of Indian society – and other socio-economic determinants in policy design explains the discrepancy between the NFHS data and the government’s ODF assertion.

There are two points that highlight how the mission’s particular focus on building toilets could perpetuate class and caste inequalities in the villages.

First, the rush to achieve ODF status diverts resources from other areas and has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. The Modi administration has galvanized bureaucracy to oversee construction of toilets – even ordering non-health officials to join the task force. Government officials have often been pressured to make unverified ODF claims about their districts.

But the villagers have an equally important role here because it was up to them to build the latrines. The federal government asked the villagers to build the toilets out of their own pockets, after which they would receive government subsidies.

The research found that officials and upper caste Hindus used coercive tactics on the lower caste (Dalits) – including the suspension of government benefits and threats of fines – to obtain ODF label for their village. Because the message of the intervention was rooted in the ‘development narrative’, those who failed to build latrines in their homes were chastised for not contributing to the development of their village.

The rural poor often used their savings for the construction of latrines and were only eligible for reimbursement if the whole neighborhood of the village had built latrines. Dalits face the added burden of withheld benefits and fines, a form of caste-based discrimination that explains why 28.8% of Dalits in rural areas still lack a toilet in NFHS-5 data.

Another challenge is access to waste treatment facilities. In the absence of centralized water and sewage, pit latrines and septic tanks require manual sweeping to dispose of excreta. According to NFHS-5 data, of the 74.1% with access to toilets, only 2.9% have a sewer connection in rural areas. Similarly, in urban areas, only 10.4% have a sewer network.

The burden of Swach Bharat falls on the lower castes, who are forced to build the latrines with their savings and shamed by officials and upper castes for not participating in the “progress” of the country. But without adequate waste treatment infrastructure, they are once again forced to engage in manual scavenging, putting their dignity and health at risk.

Unless caste and other socio-economic determinants of toilet access are included in Indian policy design and implementation, open defecation will continue, further marginalizing lower castes .

*About the author: Younus is a doctoral student in medical anthropology at the University of British Columbia and a research fellow at the Asian Research Institute in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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