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

“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.