In India, sanitation is both a physical reality and a social construct. Hence, a book ( The Right to Sanitation in India – Critical Perspectives ) that looks at sanitation in its numerous dimensions — as a legal right, through government schemes, attitudes of the judiciary and administration, gender and caste — is an invaluable contribution to the literature on the subject. Its critique of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) cannot be brushed aside.

The jury is still out on whether SBM has been successful. At the centre of the debate is whether the over nine crore toilets constructed in 5.5 lakh villages in 27 States, as claimed by the Centre on the floor of Parliament in February 2019, are actually being used. In other words, India might not exactly be ‘open defecation free’, even if all these toilets are in place, goes one side of the argument.

The CAG and the Parliamentary Committee on Urban Affairs have raised doubts over ODF claims. The government counters this by citing the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (2018-19), which surveyed over 6,000 villages and over a lakh households to arrive at the conclusion that over 90 per cent of the toilets are indeed in use. Meanwhile, anecdotal narratives suggest that SBM helped the BJP win over women voters in this general election. The book flags certain relevant questions with respect to SBM.

For instance, it argues that toilets at home remain unused, perhaps on account of a number of factors such as “unacceptable design of toilets, non-availability of water supply, people’s reluctance to give up their habit (particularly elderly people) and people’s perception of open defecation as a better option in terms of health and aesthetic factors”.

Since most of the toilets are not linked to a sewage system, it raises a couple of really disquieting questions: first, whether the groundwater is likely to be contaminated and second, whether manual scavenging, banned in 1993, is making a comeback.

The book’s strength lies in its providing a legal and sociological framework to understand ‘sanitation rights’ and those excluded in this framework. However, it does not go too much into the technological specifics, such as design of the toilets and waste treatment — an area where contributions by chemical engineers (those involved in design of sewage treatment plants, for instance) and environmentalists could have enriched the anthology.

One sided policy

While the articulation of the Safai Karamchari Andolan’s position is one of the best aspects of the collection, the book, oddly enough, does not front-load the question of whether the SBM toilets have caused an increase in manual scavenging, banned in 1993.

There have been reports that the deaths due to manual scavenging have risen post-SBM. Bezwada Wilson of SKA lays down the issues with great clarity, in a “conversation”. “Unfortunately, ‘Swachh Bharat can make Bharat dirtier...Note that 2 lakh (community) toilets can produce at least an average of some metric tonnes of excreta, but there is no mechanism, but there is no mechanism or process to decompose it.”

Observing that with SBM, “the whole burden would again be on manual scavengers”, he pithily says that the “right to sanitation cannot be just about the rights of users. It must also include the rights of service providers.”

On solutions to India’s sanitation problems, he says: “Mechanisation is one answer. Modernisation is another answer. The third response can be the implementation of relevant laws, for instance labour laws, to ensure safety...”

The shocking deaths of sewerage workers all over the country is only matched by stony official silence. There can be no bigger proof of the fact that caste based atrocities continue unabated despite the laws to check them. An essay points out how efforts to debate the rights and conditions of sewer cleaners in Parliament proved ineffective.

Hegemonic idea

Instead, there is a marked zealousness in enforcing the dominant viewpoint. As a paper points out, “the bourgeois regulation of filth and cleanliness not only served to carry out vast urban improvements, but also served as a justification for the surveillance of the poor...”

Hence, the ODF-free campaign is marked by the humiliation of those (particularly women) who venture out into the open, by ‘whistling squads’ or drones, instead of addressing their concerns. A “disciplinarian and paternalistic” state is out there in the open, with the Supreme Court too being ambivalent despite the fact that “illiteracy, debt and open defecation indicate systemic failure”.

In 2015, Haryana barred those without functional toilets in their homes from contesting the panchayat elections, with the courts too approving of what amounted to a violation of fundamental rights. The right to sanitation is spelt out in terms of municipal obligations, which are not really enforceable by the individual.

The book points to a caste bias in the implementation of SBM, observing that basic sanitation facilities are inadequate or non-existent in areas inhabited by the SCs and STs, such as Churu district in Rajasthan and Chitrakoot district in Uttar Pradesh. It is also apparent that manual scavengers have failed to free themselves of this occupation despite reservations specifically for their communities in States such as Tamil Nadu.

SBM, along with the campaign to promote menstrual hygiene, may have changed the lives of some women, addressing their privacy concerns. It can make a big difference in the enrolment rate of girls in schools and colleges. While it was evident right from October 2014, when SBM was launched, that it addressed “upper class concerns around aesthetics, leisure and health”, it is still possible to expand SBM’s scope to include the rights of the poor as well. At present, it’s impact has been controversial in a society where notions of cleanliness are intriguing, to say the least.

Finally, we are a society that organises a mega congregation like the Kumbh without really bothering about those faceless people who clean up all the muck, or whether that will contaminate the water. If this sounds like the ‘Orientalism’ of Katherine Mayo, whose book ( Mother India , 1927) was dismissed by Gandhiji as a “drain inspector’s report” so be it. Gandhiji, who questioned social prejudices in sanitation all his life, wouldn’t approve of today’s contradictions.

There is no real will on the part of the state to end manual scavenging in all its forms, despite the solution being so simple and obvious — mechanise inhuman tasks, as in all civilised societies and train the displaced to perform more dignified jobs. To ‘philosophically’ accept this state of affairs points to a deep hypocrisy: despite Ambedkar being everyone’s favourite political icon, casteism runs deep. The erudite book shows up this hypocrisy.


Philippe Cullet is Professor of International and Environmental Law, SOAS University of London, and Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Sujith Koonan is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

Lovleen Bhullar is a Doctoral Candidate at SOAS University of London, and Independent Researcher associated with the Environmental Law Research Society, New Delhi.

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