On 2nd October 2014, Prime Minister Modi launched the world’s (possibly largest) cleanliness drive, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBM) or Clean India Mission. After five years, coinciding with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, PM Modi believes that a clean India and an Open Defecation Free (ODF) India would be the ideal birthday gift for the Mahatma.
With this vision began a massive campaign that has made India closer than ever in achieving its sanitation goals. The Economic Survey of 2018-19 reports that 100% of houses in around 30 states and union territories, today, have access to household toilets. The SBM Gramin portals boast about the rise in rural sanitation coverage with 94% of households successfully capped. The mission is not just focused on constructing toilets but also indirectly constructing a healthier society and securing the fundamental rights of women and girls in India.
The lack of toilets is one of the reasons for diseases, stunting in children, school dropouts among girls, and even crimes against women. My experience with gender and sanitation issues became more focused when I associated myself with NGOs like PRIA and YWCA. My field trips took me to north-Indian villages bordering Delhi, where open defecation was the norm. In these villages, the social workers noted that street lights had not been installed. This obviously restricted the movement of women and children at night so the workers set up a few street lights.
In a matter of a few days of installing the street lights, they noticed all the light bulbs were smashed, removed or stolen. On investigation, they found that it was done deliberately in order to allow what they have to do in the dark–open defecation. Even at the risk of being teased, molested, abducted or raped–women were forced to choose the dangers lurking in the darkness than accidentally being identified under a streetlight as an open defecator. On the one hand, many socio-cultural and religious norms exist in India which does not permit the construction of a toilet within the same residential campus that also houses a temple or the sacred Tulsi plant, while on the other hand, they also shame those who have to go out to defecate in the open.
All humans are entitled to a life of dignity, access to equal opportunities and good health. Open defecation eliminates the chance of access to these. Even if most households do have latrines, in many villages, even in ODF declared states like Orissa and Gujarat, people have not been able to use them because of failure of water supply or poor construction quality. Hence, reports by independent agencies as well as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have found discrepancies in the government’s ODF claims, when there are many villages that do not have functional toilets or water supply or are simply uncovered toilets. If one has to believe these recent followup reports, then we will have to accept that the previous reports are unreliable because of ‘over-reporting’ and misplaced optimism.
An honourable mention in reportage on women and sanitation goes to Sanitation Scribes. Started by Teresa Rahman, an award-winning journalist, and a popular activist, it aims to create a community of women reporters covering women centric stories and highlight how sanitation is crucial, if not central, to all around development of a woman from enrolment in a school to personal safety.
The simplest things in life like a functional toilet can be the beginning and end of the bargain for India’s development and dignity in today’s world. A popular Hindi film, ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, has a particular scene where the protagonist laments the fact that his wife leaves him for the lack of a toilet in his house. He cries saying that while some have been able to gift a Taj Mahal to their beloved, he failed to construct a simple toilet for his wife. Truly, no gift can be of value if there is no proper sanitation, and women still have to defecate in the open in the land of Gandhiji. How clean and free India is from open defecation is something that Gandhiji is watching keenly right though his glasses, even today, as he awaits the birthday gift he was promised.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.