Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PIB

Opinion | Too little cleanliness and too much godliness

India needs a waste management system and not a single one, but multiple kinds of waste management systems to deal with local conditions

Today is the 149th birth anniversary of M.K. Gandhi, and also the fourth anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme. In 2014, he announced that by 2 October 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, India will be open defecation free. Like Gandhi, Modi also places cleanliness above godliness with his election slogan ‘toilets before temples’.

One year from the deadline is an appropriate time to take stock of how the SBA is actually faring. A quick visit to the website indicates some staggering claims. In 2014, about 61.7% of all Indians defecated in the open. Today, that number, according to the government, is 5.45%. This large reduction has come from constructing 86.6 million toilets across India. The SBA claims that 25 states and Union territories are now completely open defecation free.

If these numbers are correct, then the SBA has achieved more in the last four years than most governments have in decades. But is India really more swachh as a result of these efforts?

The first failure of the SBA is that these numbers are just plain wrong. Gujarat, Modi’s home state, was declared open-defecation free last year. These numbers on the construction of toilets were based on a 2012 list of households. However, the CAG report this year has found otherwise. Out of the 54,008 households in test-checked villages, only 38,280 (71%) households have access to toilets. Many of the districts lacking access are dominated by tribal communities. In a third of the test-checked villages, the toilets constructed under the SBA were unusable because of the lack of water connections and soak pits or sewage connections. The report also found that Uttarakhand is not open defecation free as claimed by the government.

The main reason for this failure is equating the availability of a toilet with the preference to not defecate in the open. As I have written in these pages before (on 6 February), even when toilets are provided for free by the government, Indians prefer defecating in the open to using basic latrines. As basic latrines need to be emptied out manually or pumped by simple machines, they are unacceptable to upper caste Hindus. Dealing with human feces is considered polluting and is historically associated with untouchability. Indians are unlikely to use toilets without a water connection, or a soak pit, or a sewage system, to easily deal with the waste. Any manual pumping of waste is unacceptable and unlikely. If India constructs sewage and waste management systems, open defecation will automatically reduce and eventually be eliminated.

A second failure with this increase in the construction of toilets and a campaign to end open defecation is that this takes place within a caste stranglehold. Manual scavenging, which was outlawed in 1993 is very much present. Dalit communities who historically engaged in manual scavenging are once again being forced to do the same job. Upper castes, and even other higher caste Dalits, force these jobs on them. The SBA provides no contracted jobs to these scavengers to deal with the waste, nor does it provide equipment, or safe working conditions.

One would imagine that the situation is better in places where there is a functional sewage system. Unfortunately, because of the lack of capacity of sewage systems, manual scavengers are routinely used by the government to enter the sewage system and clear blockages. As these workers are contracted by private parties, they are not government employees and do not receive any safety equipment or health services while doing such a hazardous job. They are, however, often part of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a body that is so driven by caste hierarchies, that ‘higher up’ Dalits often force those historically associated with manual scavenging to only do those jobs and not move to any other kind of cleaning jobs like sweeping and garbage collection. Just last month, five manual scavengers suffocated while clearing the blockage in a sewage pipeline in New Delhi. The Safai Karamchari Andolan reported 429 deaths due to manual scavenging in Delhi from 2016 to 2018—the most successful years of the SBA. The families of the deceased rarely receive compensation as they aren’t government workers, and the government usually refuses to even acknowledge that manual scavenging exists as a profession in present day India. This is hardly what Gandhi meant when he wanted cleanliness above godliness.

The third failure is that if toilets are actually used for defecation, which then enters a sewage system, there is still a problem of dumping untreated waste in landfills and rivers. Indian rivers have reached high levels of toxicity because of untreated human and industrial waste being dumped in staggering quantities.

To solve all these failures, India needs a waste management system and not a single one, but multiple kinds of waste management systems to deal with local conditions. Defecation is not a problem only when it’s in the open. Untreated waste handled by humans without safety gear leads to fatalities, and when dumped in rivers increases infant mortality, reduces life expectancy, and overall health outcomes.

As the flagship program of the Union government, the SBA should be tackling the big questions on waste management and sewage systems. Instead it pats itself on the back for building and distributing free toilets. With this plan India will certainly not be swachh by Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, and on Gandhi’s 250th birth anniversary we will still be drowning in our own waste if it hasn’t killed us.

Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York, and a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute, New York University School of Law.

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