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Swachh Bharat – An Imaginary Revolution

Subodh Varma |
A new cringe-worthy book by all the bigwigs involved in implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission is marked by deafening silence on key issues.
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

On September 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the ‘Global Goalkeeper’ award from the Gates Foundation in New York for leading the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan under which, 1.1 crore toilets have been built and the country has been declared almost 100% open defecation free (ODF). On the same day, in a small village called Bhavkhedi in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri district, two children, Avinash Valmiki (age 10 years) and Roshni (12 years) were beaten to death for defecating in the open.

The barbaric incident symbolises one of the many aspects of the much hyped Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that have been efficiently brushed under the carpet by the spinmeisters of the government by coercion, especially against the disadvantaged and socially oppressed. The killing of Avinash and Roshni may be an extreme example, but coercion through fines, denial of rightful benefits, caste-based ostracism and physical violence have been part of this much applauded ‘Mission’ led by the Prime Minister himself.

These and such other elements of the underbelly of SBM obviously do not find mention in the official narrative emanating from the government. The most recent example of such hyperbolic—almost delusional—rhetoric may be found in a recently released book called ‘The Swachh Bharat Revolution’ with the rather strange subtitle ‘Four Pillars of India’s Behavioural Transformation’. The book has been edited by Parameswaran Iyer, currently secretary of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, who was formerly with the World Bank. 

Also read: Does Swachh Bharat Mission Serve Its Purpose?

The book has a foreword by no less than the Prime Minister himself and contains a series of articles by ex-ministers, godmen (and women), bureaucrats, top industrialists, World Bank and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representatives, Gates Foundation people, celebrity film stars, economists and veteran journalists among others, united in fulsome praise of the SBM. Many of them are good examples of fairytale narration—where you start from a small fact and leap into a fantastic realm, on the wings of imagination.

For example, one late minister writing about how the SBM helped the economy calculates the amount of cement and number of bricks used in building 1 crore toilets to show economic benefits. Another writer calculates that each household that got a toilet would be saving Rs. 50,000 annually because otherwise, in the absence of toilets, the family would have had to suffer expenses due to a host of diseases, and wages lost in the process! Was every household that did not have a toilet suffering from these diseases? Are diseases caused only by lack of toilets? The writer is innocent of such common sense questions.

Then, of course, there are descriptions of how over 60 crore Indians were mobilised into a ‘movement’—perhaps the biggest ever in history—to fulfil the PM’s dream, which segues into Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a clean India. The PM himself makes the astounding claim that the Mahatma had declared that given a choice, he would choose cleanliness over independence from British rule.

In all this self-congratulatory verbiage bristling with superlatives—iconic, indomitable spirit, seemingly impossible, unprecedented and so on—the collection is remarkable for its omissions. Here are some of them.

Are People Using Their Toilets?

The government claims they are. It says that there are 5,99,963 villages and they were officially verified before being declared ODF. That means everybody was using toilets. However, the SBM site itself shows that this is only the first round of verification done one month after the building of toilets. The second round (done after six months) has been done only for 1,48,994 villages. That’s 24% of the total. So, the jury is still out on this.

Also watch: Swachh Bharat: BJP’s Biggest Jumla?

But more importantly, a paper published by the research institute for compassionate economics (RICE) on September 28, 2019, reveals that there is a vast difference between the way you check if a family is using their toilet or not. It depends on whether you ask toilet usage for the whole family together or you ask for each individual in the family! They found that if the researcher asks about individuals, the results show 20-21% more open defecation compared to when they asked about the whole household. In other words, some individuals of the family use the household toilet while others still continue to go out for defecation. This effectively destroys all the claims of 100% ODF villages because all such reports are based on assuming that all family members of households with a toilet are using it. 

An earlier study published by the same institute had compared toilet usage in 2014 and 2018, and found that around 43% of families in rural areas were still defecating in the open. This stands in open contradiction with the government claim that rural India is practically ODF now.

Even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in one of its reports for Gujarat pointed out that a survey conducted in 120 gram panchayats in eight districts had found that nearly 30% of the households had no access to toilets, either individual or public.

Who Will Clean Septic Tanks?

This is a question of utmost importance – and the whole celebratory Swachh Bharat/ODF narrative is completely silent on it. As Bezwada Wilson, the leader of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) has repeatedly pointed out, the heinous practice of employing—indeed, coercing—persons of so called lower castes (like the one to which Avinash and Roshni belonged to) are supposed to do the cleaning of both, toilets as well as septic tanks. Suction equipped machinery may perhaps be used in some urban or semi-urban areas but in the vast rural hinterland where most of the 1 crore toilets have been built, such equipment is not available. In any case, hiring it means money, which the poor households can ill-afford. There is no provision in SBM budgets for such arrangements. In fact, villages which have built community toilet blocks need to assure that the village community will look after the maintenance. Which means they will rely on members of the designated castes to do the job.

Also watch: Misplaced Priorities of BJP and Modi, Blind Eye to Manual Scavenging Deaths

As is well known, quite apart from the inhuman nature of this arrangement, the work itself is extremely dangerous with over 1,200 safai karmacharis having died while cleaning septic tanks in the last several years. There is a law prohibiting manual scavenging, though it exists mostly on paper. The building of so many toilets without addressing the question of how the septic tanks will be cleaned shows the indifference of the government towards both, the safai karmchari community and the lofty ideals espoused about the SBM. It appears that the unsaid assumption is that designated lower castes members will be forced to do the work of cleaning. So much for breaking the caste system.

Is There Water Available?

Indian toilets and practices need water – for flushing as well as for washing hands after defecation. If water is not readily available near the newly built toilets then families won’t be able to use it. The government, despite carrying out enormous surveys and using latest digital platforms to track everything, has singularly failed to provide any data on how many of the new toilets have water connectivity of any kind. Given the sorry state of piped water availability it will not at all be surprising if it turns out that in many, if not most of these toilets, there is no running water available. Then, they are not going to be used. In fact, this was the experience in pre-Modi toilet construction programmes too. Yet, nothing has been learnt.

ODF by Force? 

Avinash and Roshni’s murder is not the only reported case of coercion in the name of stopping open defecation. The RICE study released in January this year had recorded that 56% of those surveyed in the four Northern Indian states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) were aware of at least one of three types of coercive acts being used in their own village. These coercive acts were: stopped from open defecation by threatening or physical violence; benefits threatened, and; threats of fines.

Also read: MP Children’s Murder: Father’s Application for PMAY and Toilet Schemes Were Rejected by Sarpanch

There have been numerous reports of people being beaten up for defecating in the open. There are recorded cases where people were threatened that their Public Distribution System (PDS) benefits (cheap food grains) will be stopped if they don’t build a toilet or don’t use it. Similarly, there are reports of denial of other benefits which flow through local bodies.

Although, the big claim of SBM is that it has transformed India’s behaviour, as the book too asserts, and that SBM was possible through people’s participation (one of the pillars of the transformation), linking up toilet building with key benefits flowing from other government schemes is nothing short of callous coercion. Its scale is evident from the study and anecdotal reports.

There are many other questions that remain unaddressed or even un-raised in the cacophony surrounding the Swachh Bharat Mission. Nearly one third of India stays in urban areas. The achievements or otherwise of the urban counterpart of the Swachh Bharat Mission are not in the limelight. That’s probably because a lot of skulduggery is afoot. The initial target of providing toilets to over 1 crore households in urban areas was revised downwards to about 66 lakhs. Of these, nearly 59 lakhs have been built in five years. But disposal of solid waste and sewerage remains an unsurmountable problem still.

While undoubtedly, a large number of toilets have been built but is there really a transformation? As has been said often, history consists of the lies of the victors. That’s how the book called The Swachh Bharat Revolution will be remembered. Or maybe not even that.

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