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Need to clean our biases first, then our streets

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The country is ostensibly in the throes of a great social movement for sanitation. Gandhi’s name is evoked, Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads from the front, ministers lift brooms for cameras, and officers, college and school children take oaths against littering and to clean their surroundings. Earlier the PM pledges in his Independence Day speech toilets for girls and boys in all schools.

It appears that the squalor of rural India, slums, inner-city habitations and urban public spaces will at last end. With it the heavy toll taken on the health and well-being of millions of children by open defecation and fouled drinking water will be prevented, lives lost each year to diarrhoea saved, teenaged girls incentivised to stay in school, and young girls protected from sexual assault when they defecate in lonely open spaces in the dark.

As one public policy priority among others, sanitation is a sterling selection. Why then am I so cautious in my optimism and enthusiasm about the prospects of seeing a cleaner India? This is because India’s shameful performance in sanitation is embedded firmly in its enormous social and economic inequalities of caste, gender, religious identity and class, and in its consistently low public investments for a better life for India’s poor millions. Little in the current discussions about cleanliness reflect either the acknowledgment that India’s dirt derives mostly from its huge historical inequality, and from neglect of India’s people of disadvantage in public investment.

I find instead the present official public discourse on sanitation strangely sanitised and depoliticised. India’s millennia-old caste system is founded on great social anxieties about pollution, and little is considered as ritually polluting as human excreta. Those at the lowest depths of the caste hierarchy — and even among these mostly girls and women — are assigned the most socially humiliating duty of cleaning excreta. The two laws that outlaw manual scavenging have still not ended this practice. Responsibilities for sanitation are assigned in all municipalities, public offices and the railways overwhelmingly to persons from these most disadvantaged castes.   

The result of unchanged beliefs of caste pollution from human waste is that even if schools build toilets, they will be cleaned only by children, often girls, from the lowest castes. Children from these communities in many cities have confided to me that the humiliation of being forced to clean toilets used by their classmates is a major reason why several refuse to return to school. The toilets then remain unclean, and over time clog, smell and become unserviceable. I hear little in the plans to build school toilets which will tackle this unchanged social reality.

Take again the example of the railways. All trains still have toilets with holes which eject human excreta on to tracks. Once again it is members of the same socially most humiliated communities who are employed (mostly as low-paid contract workers) to clean the excreta from these tracks. Technologies are now available which would not eject excreta on the tracks but instead treat it without human contact. Still despite legal mandates and court directions, the railways have not made investments which would keep their tracks clean while freeing human beings from social shame and health hazards of their caste vocation of sanitation. The same applies to sewers, into which human beings still are lowered to wallow in human excreta at continuous risk to their lives. Public investments in modern sanitation technologies are not made by the railways and municipalities simply because impoverished low-caste people are available to do this work.

Public investment priorities which could increase the possibilities of sanitation for the poor are germane in many other ways as well. Toilets for schools are mandated by the Right to Education Act, 2009 but the State simply has not raise significantly its investments in school education to fulfil this and many other requirements of government schools. Low investments are even more striking in slums, in which a third to half of urban populations reside, most of these being indigent working people.

Many tend to blame slum dwellers for their squalor as though they choose to live as they do. Because of the failure of the State to provide affordable housing to the enormous unorganised workforce, they are forced to occupy open public spaces. These are not supplied basic public services like clean water, sewerage and drainage, further aggravated by the fact that many slums are located in drain-beds or land-fills, which make them hellish cesspools especially during monsoons. The India Exclusion Report 2013 by the Centre for Equity Studies reports Census 2011 data that 63% households in recognised notified slums have either open or no drainage for waste water and 34% slum households have no latrine in the premises, and over half such households defecate in the open. The figures are significantly higher for non-recognised slums, and absolute for the homeless. Inner-city areas, including those typically home to Muslims, tend to be dramatically underserved in most cities. This is true also of villages, where the Dalit and Muslim enclaves are the most unsanitary, without paved inner roads, drainage or hand-pumps. In addition most poor adolescent girls have no access to elementary menstrual hygiene.

We desperately need to battle India’s dismal conditions of sanitation if children are to be nourished, and human beings are to live in habitats which are dignified, healthy and safe. But none of these problems can be solved by pious pledges by middle-class people to keep their surroundings clean. Cleanliness is often a luxury of people of relative privilege. Cleaning India requires dismantling the deadweight of India’s inequalities, and of our tolerance of social humiliation and the governmental neglect of women, people of disadvantaged castes and religions, and of working people in slums. Until that happens, we would evoke Gandhi’s name in vain by depoliticising one of India’s most deeply political problems, perpetuated by powerlessness and neglect of India’s millions of lesser lives.

This article appeared first in The Hindustan Times, 22nd October 2014.

Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies.


Date: 23 October 2014