What Does Declaring India ‘Open Defecation Free’ Really Mean?

On October 2, 2014, the Swachch Bharat Mission was launched across country with an aim to achieve the vision of a ‘clean and open defecation free India’ by October 2, 2019.

It has been reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared India an open defecation free nation. To start with, the problem of open defecation carries several health hazards. Human waste, when not safely treated, ends up polluting rivers, lakes and neighbourhoods, which results in the high rate of diseases like diarrhoea, hepatitis and other gastrointestinal diseases. With nearly 75% of sewage and faecal waste remaining untreated, it is one of the biggest sources of water contamination in India.

Toilet Tales

The practise of open defecation is steeped in a typical societal pattern in India where society is still divided on caste lines. This is starkly visible in rural India where the problem can primarily be located. The issue of open defecation remains an enigma because the policy planning to counter the convoluted issue has divided planners, academics and campaigners on the question of containing it and truly making India open defecation free into neat categories of optimists and pessimists.

Optimists argue that India is poised to overcome the issue with the construction of more toilets and a sustained campaign in each district and nook and cranny of India. Moreover, the UN is sufficiently backing the project. At the same time, pessimists argue that India is really nowhere near eliminating open defecation as it mainly thrives in rural areas and due to accompanying caste prejudices and the fact that promotion of good sanitary behaviour figures nowhere in the top government agendas as it should have, it is a gargantuan task to accomplish.

Moreover, the statistics of number of districts covered under total sanitation campaigns only tell one side of the story as government officials have allegedly adopted coercive tactics to meet policy targets and in fact even as the problem remains alive at the ground level, the government is going ahead with its stated policy agenda of declaring India ‘open defecation free.’

This poses a perplexing contradiction in terms of addressing an issue with multiple dimensions.

Open defecation along Mumbai local train tracks. (Photo Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr)

Open Defecation: Beyond The Policy Narrative

It was reported that on September 25, 2019, two Dalit children were brutally lynched for defecating in the open. Maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg. This incident puts spotlight on the issue of untouchability as it has been argued by researchers Diane Coffey and Dean Spears in their book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste that extremely small number of people are willing to do the “unclean” work of emptying latrine pits, also touching upon concepts of purity and pollution promote open defecation in rural India.

Coffey and Spears question the tall claim of the Government of India that it will make India free from open defecation in 2019. They cite several examples to register the point that there is a direct relationship between the concept of pollution and purity and sanitary behaviour adopted, especially by rural masses.

In one of the examples quoted in a Working Paper of the International Growth Centre, a young man, a Brahmin from Haryana, in a way misappropriated the germ theory of disease in explaining why he would not want to have a latrine at home. As per his view: “If a latrine is in the house, there will be bad smells, germs will grow. Latrines in the house are like… hell. The environment becomes completely polluted. There is no benefit of lighting [religious candles and lamps], no benefit at all.”

One of the prime reasons for good sanitary behaviour to not permeate through the rural landscape has been that upper caste communities are not willing to do the work of emptying latrine pits themselves and are also averse to having a toilet near to their living quarters due to notions of religious purity. At another place in their book, Coffey and Spears quote this interview with Priya, a woman living in semi-urban Sitapur who observed thus:

“We call a Bhangi even if something gets clogged in the latrine… How can we empty it ourselves? It is disgusting, so a Bhangi must come to clean it… We are Hindus, so how can we clean it? [If we do], how will we worship afterwards? If money were an issue we would take a loan for it; we would have to find some way to get it emptied. This work can only be done by people who inherit this occupation. They are Bhangis, they have been created [by God] for this work.”

(Bhangi refers to a member of the Bhangi caste, traditionally restricted to cleaning latrines and handling dead bodies.)

This illustrates the manner in which the task of toilet cleaning is perceived in rural India. It is considered an unclean occupation. It is considered polluting. It is thought that only a specific caste or castes are ordained to do the task of scavenging and cleaning toilets. Such behaviour is bound to promote open defecation and may also lead to social confusion and vendetta politics as it happened in the case of Dalit boys in Madhya Pradesh. This is certainly a big obstacle in the path towards the elimination of open defecation.

It has been made clear by a government press release that the incentive to build a toilet is not the “cost of a toilet” as erroneously being reported in media. The Government of India serves a straight forward prescription to eliminate open defecation. Allocate ₹12,000 as a subsidy/incentive to every household in rural India and eliminate the problem of open defecation by 2019. But, is it as simple and easy as it sounds?

There is a rush to meet the deadline and targets are being achieved on paper, at least. This phenomenon has led to a large number of unused toilets. In fact, it is feared that the objective of SBA (Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan) could legitimize manual scavenging. The SBA, currently, operates under a reimbursement model, where the households are expected to build toilets from their own funds and then, upon producing the required documents, are reimbursed with ₹12,000-15,000 depending on the caste of the household.

The underlying logic is that, if every household in rural India, let’s say in a particular village, has a constructed toilet, then the village is declared ‘open defecation free.’ The policy in this way overlooks the social factors which determine the sanitary and unsanitary behaviour of people.

What Lies Ahead?

Needless to say, the SBA has been hailed by many to have delivered results but the manner of implementation and the realistic assessment of the problem shall prove useful in eradicating the problem permanently. As per Census estimates of 2011, over half the country had no toilets. The situation is different now but concerns remain over the manner of implementation of policy with a scant regard for social dynamics.

Mahatma Gandhi leaves a mixed legacy on sanitation principles. While he was a stickler for cleanliness in his personal life, his theory of glamorising the traditional occupation of the Bhangi community and conceding little in way of elimination of caste bias, when it came to cleaning toilets lends little help to the cause.

He had observed in Harijan on September 15, 1946: “Whether the flush system will remove the curse of untouchability is open to grave doubt. This has to go from our hearts. It will not disappear through such means as has been suggested. Not until we all become Bhangis and realise the dignity of labour of scavenging and latrine cleaning will untouchability really be exorcised.”

What happens after October 2, 2019, when urban India is declared open defecation free? Latching on to the idea, the government is in a hurry to score another emphatic policy victory. Even as Gandhi’s spectacles have become ubiquitous with India’s crusade against open defecation, does it really mean we may now not be witness to people relieving themselves in the open near railway tracks, open fields, abandoned plots and other secluded places and open places? Well, this is certainly doubtful.

The real success of SBA may actually be in promoting good sanitary behaviour at all levels of urban and rural administrative and societal setups. Mere construction of toilets without an accompanying social reform plan will serve no good in the long run. If this riddle is solved, then we can surely say goodbye to open defecation for all times to come.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr.
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