“Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of an India which was not only free but also clean and developed.” These were the words with which PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) in 2014. He called upon the 125-crore-strong Indian population on board an ambitious movement to gift Gandhi the Clean India of his dreams in 2019. With much pomp and splendour, the movement took off, emphasising on freedom from open defecation as a stepping stone to equality.
In 3 years, over 1 crore toilets have been built across the country. But is India really open defecation free (ODF)? Comments on a visual Youth Ki Awaaz had shared earlier revealed that the practice continues even in big cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad that have officially been declared as ODF. And this is just one example of how the Abhiyan has been failing. Why? For one, building toilets across the country has not adequately addressed the need for attitudinal change that is paramount to making India ‘clean’. But a bigger concern is that the SBA, built on the premise of securing social and economic equality in the long run, is ironically very selective in its approach.
Don’t believe us? Take a look at those that the SBA has forgotten in the race to make Bharat Swachh:
India generates 1,00,000 metric tonnes of waste per day. And the mammoth task of waste segregation is left to India’s ragpickers, according to Shashi Bhushan Pandit, who runs the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (All India Ragpickers Union). Ragpickers work in dangerous conditions, without safety gear, minimum wages and technical training. Consequently, a lot of reusable waste also ends up in landfills.
By simply formalising their work and ensuring basic rights, India can make giant leaps in waste management – truly making it Swachh. Because presenting clean roads, while overburdening landfills doesn’t make the cut for ‘development’.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India made a landmark move directing state governments to ban the inhuman practice of manual scavenging and work towards rehabilitation.To date, however, dry latrines continue to exist, with over 5 lakh people – 95% Dalits – employed in cleaning shit with their bare hands.
According to Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, the Indian Railways itself has over 4 lakh dry toilets in its coaches and is the largest employer of manual scavengers, despite the practice being illegal. Without financial support and inclusion and at the mercy of the exploitative caste system and institutions, this community, Shaikh says, barely has access to the sanitation that Swachh Bharat promises to all.
In 2014, trans people in India got legal recognition as the ‘third gender’. Yet, this community’s basic right to sanitation is consistently ignored. For instance, renowned trans-rights activist Akkai Padmashali faced harassment and was told, “You don’t belong here,” while trying to use the women’s toilet in a government building in Karnataka, as recently as last year.
And she’s not alone. Without safe toilets for trans people available in public spaces, lakhs are subject to abuse and harassment. This even makes many want to hold back the urge to pee, rather use a public toilet.
Another concern that SBA needs to focus on urgently is the fact that discrimination over toilets begins in our very homes. For many domestic workers, the right to use the toilets in the homes they clean is denied. Speaking to just 3 – 4 domestic workers in Delhi revealed that many of them prefer to defecate in the open rather than face the abuse that comes with using toilets in people’s homes.
When toilets at home itself are considered to be “too pure” for “maids” to use, how does building more toilets outside lead to a more equal, Swachh Bharat?
Be it urban, rural, private or public setups, using toilets is near-impossible for people with disabilities. Just last year, YKA user Jolly Mohan published a story, on being forced to wear adult diapers, because she happens to be a wheelchair user and toilets are inaccessible for her.
And let’s face it. We still see a fair number of public toilets across urban landscapes in India, but how many are built keeping people with disabilities in mind? And how many disability-friendly toilets are kept in running condition on priority?
We belong to a society that has a significant history of stigmatising and discriminating women who are on their period. For several women, the lack of hygiene, lack of sanitary pad dispensers and unavailability of clean, running water in public toilets acts as a deterrent, with many being forced to pee on the road. And the question on their lips can’t be asked enough: Kab aayegi swachhta (when will cleanliness be a reality)?
For people living in slums in India, using public toilets is nothing short of a nightmare. For instance, in West Delhi’s Nangloi district, the only usable toilets in the area are covered in shit and hardly maintained. And in East Delhi’s Seelampur area, even the toilets in the local hospital lack cleanliness and maintenance to the extent that people defecate in the open in the healthcare centre itself, posing even more of a health risk.
The Swachh Bharat Mission’s ambition to clean India is in the right place. But more than halfway through, shouldn’t the government take stock and realise that its twin promise of cleanliness and equality is falling through, and at a massive scale? The high level publicity around the movement overshadows those who are suffering and will continue to suffer if the Abhiyan persists on being a movement for the privileged. And the only hope for the lakhs of people who are ignored is to call the government’s attention to their plight urgently.