Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was PM Modi’s first major project re-brand. Since then, many such UPA launched projects have gone through Modi Ji’s rebranding mill; but, besides the advertorial shine, little else has been done to take make these projects a success. Now, thanks to the dauntless efforts of activists, aid workers and health & sanitation experts, we have not just a clearer understanding of the Swachh Bharat Jumla, but also its darker implications.
The latest amongst these is UN Special Rapporteur Leo Heller, who upon completion of a an extensive two-week tour of the many touted “successes” of this program, had little in the way of praise for it. What the poor in the country have always known has now hit the front pages, much to the NDA government’s chagrin.
Open defecation - a thing of the present
The government’s focus on the construction of toilets seems to be an intentional effort to divert attention from the fact that many of these toilets generally don’t work: only 33% of the toilets built are sustainably safe, while the rest are barely useable or in fact, highly unsafe(as high as 35%). Additionally, the lack of proper plumbing to provide clean water and the removal of waste and excrement makes this a pointless piece of infrastructure that is fit for only one thing, Modi Ji’s photo ops. What’s worse, a system of discrimination has already developed over the few functioning toilets, with scheduled castes, schedules tribes and minorities routinely being denied access to these facilities. Lack of government funds, poor planning and even poorer implementation have only added to the woes of those at the bottom of the social pyramid.
The end result? Open defecation near slum areas has continued and government insistence that a real solution has already been provided has caused many would-be well wishers to step away. As of late, the NDA’s PR department has been working overtime to dismiss any criticisms of the program and trying to refocus attention away from its many failures by attacking these same well wishers.
The caste that cleans, shall always clean
We’ve all seen the photos with the PM holding a broom, a good example of how cleanliness is everyone’s responsibility. Yet, in practice it’s not a community-wide effort but still the unwanted domain of certain communities in India. The upper castes in many parts of India continue to force lower castes to assume the duties of sanitation against their will. The infrastructure for the Swachh Bharat Mission(Rural) only seems to have reinforced this class dynamic, since the lack of sewage lines in most rural toilets means that someone still has to clean them out, manually.
Respected activist and national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson, has this to say about the program:
Instead of modernising the sewer lines and septic tanks and investing money and energy on smart techniques of sanitation, you are adding more problems to the existing problem. You have no concern for those who are dying cleaning sewers. People who have given up their lives in keeping Bharat clean, you have not spoken about their Right to Life!
Mr Wilson, who comes from a community of manual scavengers has spent his life fighting for their rights; in October of 2010 he had seen his efforts come to fruition when, the National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi resolved to put an end to manual scavenging across the country. Task forces were formed, fresh surveys were conducted and recommendations made on rehabilitation of Safai Karamcharis and on demolition of dry latrines, all of which have either been ignored by the Modi Government or have, in the case of dry latrines, received government funding and expansion under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Today 7,94,390 dry latrines exist that require manual cleaning.
The government’s intolerance to any constructive criticism of the program, the lack of emphasis on clean drinking water that is responsible for more deaths than open defecation, the inability of many marginalised communities to find access to toilet facilities due to either lack of availability or caste/religion based discrimination can only mean one thing: this was just another Modi “Jumla” and from a public health view-point, probably his most dangerous one ever.