Research amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the virus is transmitted through wastewater. This makes it crucial to revisit the goals of India’s ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission, or SBM) that came to a close almost exactly a year ago. While there were substantial improvements made in toilet coverage, a lack of data clarity muddies an understanding of exactly how large these improvements were across the country. According to government estimates, national sanitation coverage was 51% in 2014 when SBM began and reached 78% in 2018, less than a year prior to the end of the program. While this certainly shows progress — the national average was just under 26% in 1999 — no one would think to take these numbers and simply round up to 100%.
But at the close of the SBM last fall, this is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi did. Speaking to a crowd, Modi proclaimed that India was now completely open defecation free (ODF), with sanitation coverage reported by the SBM portal as 100% in rural areas and, inexplicably, 105% in urban areas. From the start of the 2014 campaign, the central government maintained that in just five short years, India would be ODF. Despite the gains made, a singular focus on meeting steep targets in a very short amount of time seems to have put Modi in a tight spot by the time October 2019 rolled around.
Caste Politics Overshadow Sanitation Issues in India
The gaps have been, at times, glaring. News reports from established outlets all over the country reported open defecation in areas that were already recorded as ODF. A 2018 study by the Rice Institute estimated an open defecation rate of 44%, meaning nearly half of the sampled population was still engaging in the practice hardly a year before SBM ended. In urban areas the picture looks a bit better: 95% of urban households access an improved toilet. But this includes community toilets, which may be used by hundreds of other families and are often plagued with maintenance, hygiene and safety issues. Furthermore, one survey from 18 states identified over 48,000 manual scavengers still cleaning “dry” toilets which do not discharge into sewer lines.
What explains these inconsistencies? The use of shame-based tactics to stop open defecation, alongside a rush to meet ODF goals, have built up a pressure-cooker environment. The SBM has continued prior national efforts that deemphasized technical solutions and focused heavily on strategies to encourage behavior change at the local level. One such strategy is Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), which hinges on “triggering” disgust and extreme emotions among community members to spur the abandonment of open defecation. Despite some concerns about shame-based approaches, the SBM continued with the CLTS Foundation and others as implementation partners.
But open defecation is an issue that needs more than short-term emotional reactions. The longstanding practice is mired in cultural tradition, casteist taboos and environmental factors, among others. Some reasons people give for it is that they do not wish to empty a pit themselves, that it is considered more hygienic to defecate further away from the home — certainly reasonable considering how few poor Indian homes have running water — or that community toilets are dirty and unsafe, so squatting in a quiet area nearby is actually preferable.
In the SBM environment, people who have not built a toilet, for whatever reason, are highly likely to experience retaliation for continuing to defecate in the open. Because Indian culture is quite collective — the actions of one person are seen to have radiating effects on the family and community — sometimes social pressure can play a role in nudging behavior change. However, this is a slippery slope. In India’s highly unequal society, characterized by stark gender and caste-based hierarchies amidst a wide array of languages and ethnicities, such strategies have the potential to be misused, with large social costs.
There is ample evidence to show this. In June 2017, Zafar Hussein, a local community leader agitating against the eviction of his settlement in Rajasthan, was allegedly beaten to death by local officials for trying to stop officials from taking photographs of women defecating in the open. His death was reported by multiple outlets. In other areas of Maharashtra, people have been followed by a loud band, jailed or fined for defecating in the open.
Walls of shame have been instituted by local village councils onto which the names and photographs of people defecating openly are be pasted. These individuals were often removed from eligibility for local government programs. The previously mentioned Rice Institute study also recorded coercion and threats of the loss of government rations as a way to bring down open defecation rates. Notably, the study found that Dalits and Adivasis were the most likely to face such behaviors. India’s Health Ministry has publicly denounced the results of the Rice survey. But in September last year, weeks before Modi’s ODF declaration, two young Dalit children were beaten to death in their village in Madhya Pradesh for defecating in the open.
Numbers, Strategies and Health Equity
These debates over sanitation data are not merely academic exercises. They have real, material impacts on people. In some ways, the above tragedies are not surprising. If a hasty approach is taken toward declaring areas ODF, it follows that any activity hinting that this claim is not matched by reality will be quashed. Despite this, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation bestowed the Global Goalkeeper Award upon Modi last year. It is surprising that one of the largest, most influential health organizations in the world, committed to facts and data, accepted without question the Indian prime minister’s claims, failing to consider all the evidence to the contrary.
So what is the solution? Certainly, the answer is not to give up on sanitation programming as the need remains great. There are several organizations on the ground that have successfully integrated mobilization with communities, technical expertise and a sustained presence through which people are not merely pressured to stop a practice but meaningfully guided toward an alternative and given the facts and tools to integrate that alternative into their lives.
However, this takes a more long-term presence, a less single-minded focus on quick targets, a commitment toward waste management infrastructure besides just toilets, and a willingness to meet people where they are. Further, the same people who have fallen through the gaps in the SBM are those with a lot to lose during the current pandemic: the rural poor, slum-dwellers, sanitation workers, manual laborers and migrants. Brutal crackdowns against those who kept working amidst India’s COVID-19 lockdown illustrate that retaliation cannot continue to be a solution when reality does not match the official word. Amidst the pandemic, sanitation infrastructure and the transparency of data surrounding it are necessities that cannot afford to wait.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.