How Casteism Is Preventing The End Of Open Defecation In India

Posted by Samyak Bahuguna in Health and Life, Society
January 26, 2018

“Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. […] Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the
needy. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes.”

These words by BR Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, vividly describe how the caste system and casteism has eroded the morality of the Indian masses. One can feel the pain and anguish in Ambedkar’s words for this discriminatory social hierarchical order.

Casteism is one of the major contributors to the problem of pervasive open defecation in rural India. Somehow, the popular government programme, Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (SBM) fails to address the elephant in the room. In fact, I don’t think that a majority of the people are even aware that SBM is more about the open defecation problem. They generally tend to associate it with maintaining the general cleanliness of the surroundings. But blame should also be equally shared by the politicians and celebrities, who are seen doing photo-ops holding brooms more than taking the main culprit (casteism) head-on.

The average open defecation rate is 52.1% in rural India. The national rate doesn’t give the entire picture of inter-state differences in the levels of open defecation in rural areas – Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar being at the higher end of the spectrum.

A common argument that is popular in political circles is that open defecation is due to poverty, as poor people cannot afford to build toilets. A cursory glance at our eastern neighbor, Bangladesh, tells a completely different story. Bangladesh has nearly half the per-capita income India has. However, they have been successful in nearly eliminating open defecation. Even the sub-Saharan African nations, which are poorer than India, have less open defecation levels than India. So, in my opinion, the poverty argument doesn’t hold true.

India’s contribution to the world’s open defecation problem grows each year. In 2012, India accounted for nearly 60% of cases of open defecation in the global arena. Somehow, the rest of the world has figured out the rambaan ilaaz for the open defecation problem, while the Indian elephant is still dragging its feet. So, let’s explore the cruel world of the caste system to understand how it is acting as roadblock to toilet-use in India.

Ideas Of Purity And Pollution

The hierarchical caste system divides the Hindu society into four varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra. The rest of the people left out are not even grouped, and are generally referred to as the ‘untouchables’. The latter are supposed to do all the menial work for the rest of the varnas – including manual scavenging and disposing of animal carcass.

The higher castes associate these forms of work with purity – and hence, they often tend to avoid any form of social relationships with the Dalits. In the post-colonial era, in some parts of India, the ‘untouchables’ would hang a pot around their necks to prevent their spit from falling on ground and also wear a broom around their waists to sweep the ground as they moved, so that they didn’t pollute it.

In the caste system, cleanliness and purity apply to objects, to situations and also to people.

Ideas about purity and pollution are often used to justify why some castes are ranked higher than the others. These arguments come in the way of the adoption of toilet pits, as the latrine pit has to be manually emptied when it gets filled. Many people in rural areas equate manually emptying a latrine pit with the most degrading form of Dalit labour. People from the higher castes are unwilling to perform this traditionally ‘untouchable’ work, even as more and more Dalits reject these forms of employment.

Consequently, people in such areas seem to be content with defecating in the open. They dig a larger pit so that it only gets filled over a longer time. This situation seems to be unique to India, as people in other countries do seem to be cleaning their own shit.

However, the Indian society’s obsession with ritual purity is compromising their physical cleanliness. While the rest of the world is rapidly eliminating open defecation, India is still dragging its feet which is affecting both its health and economy.

Albatross Around The Neck

The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says that India is like the ‘islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa’. gives a reality check to India’s lop-sided development story.

India boasts of being one of the fastest growing economies, but fares poorly on the Human Development Index (HDI), ranking 131 out of the 188 countries in the list. One of the major reasons for its poor performance in the HDI is the prevalence of open defecation.

Open defecation exposes people to germs which can cause many diseases like diarrhoea, parasitic infections, etc. The prevalence of diseases often results in child-stunting, as these germs can absorb nutrients from the food. When children grow, their bodies, brains and minds all develop together. Child-stunting leads to lower learning outcomes in the future, which leads to a lower intellect of the population, and ultimately affects the economy.

Open defecation also contributes to increased inequality in both health and income among the people. In effect, this inequality is perpetuated across generations. Another storm that is in the making is increased anti-microbial resistance of micro-organisms. Diseases cause people to take up antibiotics. However, the reckless use of antibiotics in a country like India has led to many germs becoming more resilient and infectious.

It can been seen that open defecation is having a sort of a multiplier-effect, and is becoming a headache for policymakers in India and in the rest of the world. Open defecation is not merely a threat to the health of families who do it – open defecation is everybody’s business.

The Weak State

The Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (SBM) is yet another scheme having latrine-construction plans. It has been given significant importance – with PM Modi giving a personal touch to it.

But, a close look reveals it to be a mere continuation of what came before it. Only a miniscule portion of the total budget is allocated for changing people’s attitude towards defecation, especially those associated with casteism. Often, the government is building toilets even when there is nobody to use it, or even if they have one.

Also, the power of the Indian state is limited – in part, because the state lacks the human resources needed for behavioral change, but also because the social forces against it are strong. Fareed Zakaria sums it up, “India is a strong society with a weak state.”

The government should work towards behavioral change, as this holds the key towards an increased use of toilets. The clock is ticking fast for India, with the population becoming younger over the years. This could be used as demographic dividend to propel India to prosperity, but open defecation is hanging like an albatross around its neck. An ailing population cannot lead to the development and the growth of the economy.

An old adage perfectly sums this up: “When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”


Featured image used for representative purposes only.