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Welcome To Swachh Bharat, Where Your Privilege Determines How You Pee

WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

“We live in a society where accidental birth determines your choices in life.”

Powerful words spoken by V. K. Madhavan of WaterAid India. Yes, we live in a country where the caste, class and gender you’re born into determines our choices, so much so that even a decision to use the toilet is determined by our privilege.

When we gathered for the #InDeepShit event organised by Youth Ki Awaaz and WaterAid India on April 22, we were all set to examine India’s sanitation crisis.


What began as a discussion around availability and access to toilets in the country, soon evolved into a one exploring how socio-cultural identifications influence how we can relieve ourselves.

Here are the 7 most important highlights from the event:

1. The Illegal Practice Of Forced Manual Scavenging Is A Harsh Reality For Many Even Today

Lalibai, a liberated manual scavenger and founder of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, which works to empower and rehabilitate manual scavengers in the country, kickstarted the discussion by throwing light on the fact that the illegal practice of manual scavenging is still a dark reality in India.

Lalibai shared, through personal anecdotes, how lakhs of rural women born into ‘lower’ castes are forced to take up the practice of manual scavenging by their families and villages, just so they can have meals on their table. When we say Swachh Bharat, then, are we not supposed to consider those who get down to the dirty work?

2. We Need To Include Homeless People In Discussions When We Talk About Access To Toilets

Sunil Kumar Aledia took the discussion forward with a talk on how access to toilet facilities in the Indian context are also limited to the upper class/ caste context. When it comes to homeless people in Delhi, for instance, it’s almost as if we don’t think about them as people who need to answer nature’s call.

It’s simple. If homeless people don’t have access to toilets in the shelters built for them, where will they relieve themselves? How then, will the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan fulfil its promise of making India open-defecation-free by 2019?

3. For People With Disabilities, Finding Accessible Toilets Can Be A Nightmare

Accessible toilets are practically impossible to find in the country. Nipun Malhotra, founder of the Nipman Foundation added much insight to the discussion at the event by sharing his perspective as a person with disability.

Malhotra particularly stressed on the fact that under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, there is no incentive given to build disabled-friendly toilets, particularly in rural areas. He concluded, “If other countries can be mindful of the needs of people with disabilities, why not India?”

4. We Never Consider The Needs Of Gender Non-Conforming Persons When We Talk About Toilet Accessibility

With Section 377 being imposed, the queer community in India has become one of the most oppressed and disadvantaged communities in the country. As it is, social stigma makes it hard for someone identifying as LGBT+ in the country to access the basics of education and job.

But, as Aastha Singh Raghuvanshi pointed out during the discussion, the queer community in India faces severe discrimination when it comes to accessing hygiene, as well. She also pointed out how, having a progressive law in place would not solve the issue, as it is also a deep behavioural change that needs to be effected for members of the LGBT+ community to access basic resources, including toilets, in India.

5. We Need Stricter Laws To Protect Those Who Are Implementing Swachh Bharat’s Mission And Cleaning Toilets

The second panel discussion started off on a fiery note, as Bezwada Wilson, the co-founder and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), took the mic. He began his talk by stressing first and foremost, that the Swachh Bharat Mission has been put in place as a business, a business that oppresses and systematically ignores the basic rights of those implementing it, that is, the cleaners.

Wilson went on further to highlight how with 98% of manual scavengers being women in the country, sanitation is an issue that needs to be seen through the lens of caste and patriarchy.

6. Swachh Bharat Mission Needs To Account For Behavioural Change

With Yamini Aiyer from the Centre for Policy Research taking the discussion forward, we moved on to the topic of policy implementation. One key aspect she stressed on is the need for Swachh Bharat to focus on behavioural change, instead of solely focusing on building more toilets.

Indeed, in a country where accessing toilets at will is a privilege only upper-caste, upper-class, heteronormative and non-disabled individuals enjoy, her words need heeding. Bipin Rai, of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board too, backed Aiyer’s words, adding that maintenance is a key factor that Swachh Bharat needs to account for.

7. The Way Forward? Make Room For Diversified Discussions

As the second panel drew to a close, V. K. Madhavan concluded the discussion by stating that the way forward for a Swachh Bharat is only through a change in mindsets.

We need to recognise our privilege and stand with and speak for those who weren’t born into upper class/caste households.

And finally, we need open, free spaces for discussion on these topics, where together, we can all discard the cloak of privilege and move towards a truly cleaner, healthier India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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