Swachh Bharat: Hiding Caste Discrimination in Cleanliness

The Swachh Bharat Mission claims to have made significant progress in improving sanitation in India. But how credible are these claims?

On 2 October 2019, M K Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India is “open defecation free”. This announcement was made only a week after two children were reportedly beaten to death for open defecation. The central government has appropriated Gandhi as an icon for the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). It has been received with much fanfare across the media despite research reports painting a rather bleak picture. More than a 100 million toilets have been built under the mission, but as an IndiaSpend report points out, only one in four people in households with toilets, actually use them. 

Numbers and factual inconsistencies aside, the SBM has promoted an uncritical view of cleanliness, one that is severed from the social realities of a caste-based society. If the SBM refuses to take cognisance of these inequalities and incorporate measures to address them, then effectively the SBM cannot accomplish the goals that it has set for itself.

In this reading list, we look at some of the issues that have been plaguing the SBM since its inception in 2014. 

1) Debatable Progress on Open Defecation

The SBM was announced with the intention of making India “open defecation free” by October 2019. Though Modi has declared this on 2 October 2019, researchers Diane Coffey and Dean Spears had challenged the claims made by the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2018, based on data from the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS-4). In their article, they compare NFHS-4 data with Census 2011 data on open defecation to argue that the decline in open defecation from 2015 to 2016 would have needed to be 13 percentage points per year for the SBM to meet its 2019 goal.

If the average decline in rural open defecation from December 2016 to October 2019 proves to be similar to what the NFHS–4 indicates it was from January 2015 through November 2016, then about half of all rural Indians will still be defecating in the open at the end of the SBM.

Coffey and Spears’s claim was contested by Yugal Joshi, the director of SBM. Joshi argues that there were more reliable sets of data, such as a survey by the Quality Council of India (QCI) and the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey (NARSS) 2017–18 that the authors could have used to compare the NFHS-4 data with. According to Joshi, these surveys provide a more accurate picture of the effect that SBM has had since 2014.

The fact is that rural sanitation in the country has indeed made significant progress in the last few years. The sanitation coverage in rural India has more than doubled from 39% in October 2014, at the start of the SBM, to 86% today. A total of 7.6 crore toilets have been built across villages in India, accompanied with a strong focus on changing sanitation behaviours. 

2) Impediments to Implementation

While funds and cesses have been set up by the central government to facilitate the SBM with the aim to construct individual household latrines (IHHL), R V Rama Mohan’s 2017 article has found that there have been three main bottlenecks that the initiative has faced in terms of implementation in rural India. These are: a lack of doorstep water supply, the need for an initial investment in construction by individual households, and the existence of many defunct IHHLs in villages.

The need for upfront investment of around Rs 6,000 has considerably slowed down the adoption of IHHLs among the poor, especially the SC [Scheduled Caste] and ST [Scheduled Tribe] communities, in remote villages. Another issue is the high costs involved in building an IHHL with “additional necessities.” Many households, once they decide to construct an IHHL, prefer Western style toilet seats and tiles in the toilets and want to construct a bathing room along with the IHHL as well. Some households even enlarge the size of these units depending on the space available within the house. The preference for Western style toilet seat is increasing mainly for the convenience of old people or people suffering from bone and joint ailments, mostly in fluoride endemic areas. Thus, construction of an IHHL along with a bathing room costs around Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000. The high costs and crop failures due to recurring droughts are also pushing rural households to delay the construction of already sanctioned IHHLs.

3) Sanitising Caste

The SBm has swept over the connection that caste has with cleanliness. Subhash Gatade argues that this top-down initiative has erased the Dalits who actually work as safai karamcharis. This has invisibilised their work further. In his article, he says that there are over 30,000 conservancy workers/sweepers employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, all of whom are Dalits. These workers almost always die before retirement. The average life expectancy among them is 45 years.

...millions of people in this country—who are equal citizens of the republic—are condemned to live a subhuman life in the second decade of the 21st century, so that the rest of the society looks “clean.” Also, it is high time that we acknowledge the “contribution they make for our health and survival, at the cost of their own health and survival.” 

4) Empty Promises 

The SBM made many promises when it was announced, the grandest of which was universal sanitation. Within the ambit of this, the SBM also promised to rehabilitate manual scavengers in India. But as Manjur Ali has pointed out, there are approximately 3.42 lakh manual scavengers who were yet to be rehabilitated as per a government report in 2015. Quoting Anand Teltumbde, Ali argues that, “The biggest flaw of Modi’s mission so far is that he has totally missed the point if he really meant business. He must understand that India cannot be swachh without the caste ethos being completely eradicated” 

Quite a bit of euphoria has been in the air with regard to the SBM, thanks to extensive media coverage. Responses to SBM can be categorised under two heads. On the one hand, the upper classes/castes have appreciated the effort; they envisage a business opportunity and visualise a dirt-free India (in their eyes, dirt is associated with the lower castes/classes). The upper classes/ castes do not have to now feel ashamed in the company of their foreign partners anymore. On the other hand, a large section of the population (the deprived) has no clue as to what has been going around in the name of swachhta.


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