India remains far from being open defecation free after 7 years of Swachh Bharat Mission

Toilet usage on paper, not in practice


November 8, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

India remains far from being open defecation free after 7 years of Swachh Bharat Mission

As per report at least 1 pc of the urban and 22 pc of rural population in India still practices open defecation (MIG Photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

Access to sanitation has been essential for human dignity, health and wellbeing but open defecation and manual scavenging are still a major issue in India. As per the recent report, almost 15pc people in India practices open defecation, most of them does despite having access to a toilet which causes and affects the health of people.

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Two years ago, on October 2, 2019, the Indian government had claimed that its first stage of the much hyped up Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), had been successfully completed after five years. On the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the country to be 100 pc open defecation free. Modi, on the occasion, also announced the launch of the second phase to make door-to-door waste collection a reality across India.

While the media parroted the government’s claims, open defecation has continued to be a reality even in the heart of the national capital, New Delhi, and barely 5 km from Modi’s house. Take for instance, the Barapullah slum near Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station where over 500 families have been living for decades. People living here say let alone private toilets as claimed by Modi, they still don’t have even public toilets, forcing them to continue the decades-old practice of open defecation near the railway tracks even now.

“Before the sunrise clearly or after sunsets, these are the usual times we go to defecate by the railway tracks. There is no toilet here, we all go out in the open to defecate. It has been a problem for so long time,” Muthu Lakshmi, 19, a student living in the Barapullah slum, tells Media India Group.

“It is not by choice as people keep passing near-by and it is very shameful for us to be out there in the open. There is a public toilet at the railway station but we have to pay INR 5 each time, so that makes it over INR 1,000 per month for our family, and we cannot afford to spend so much money every month on this,” says Lakshmi.

One can spot similar stories of open defecation, not just in New Delhi, but across all cities of India, let alone villages which are even worse off in civic amenities like public toilets. Finally, the government’s lies were also nailed by multilateral bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United National Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

On July 1 this year, a report by the joint monitoring programme on water, sanitation and hygiene of  the WHO and UNICEF said that at least 15pc of the total population in India defecates in the open. The report said that at least 1 pc of the urban and 22 pc of rural population in India still practiced open defecation.

Toilets built on paper, not in practice

At the end of 2020, the Swachh Bharat Mission claimed that over 99 pc rural households had access to a toilet and most villages had been declared open defecation free. But even in the places where the toilets have actually been built and provided to people, there have been numerous reports, in thousands, of people not being able to use them due to several practical problems. First and foremost, lack of water to clean the toilet after usage. And even where water may not be a problem, there are other basic issues which show that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was meant more to be on paper than in practice.

“Everyone here has toilet facilities, the state government has launched a scheme in which they provided all the necessary basic requirements like cement, bricks and sand free of cost and people got a chance to build their own private toilets. In the beginning, we were glad to use our own private toilets, but had to stop within a few weeks as the septic tanks provided by the government were too small and could fill up soon and we don’t know how to clean them and it will expensive to get it cleaned by someone. So, since then we have stopped using our toilets, except for emergencies, and we have all started to go back into the near-by forest to defecate,” Shanthi, 39, resident of Pasar, a small village in Kallakurichi district in Tamil Nadu tells Media India Group.

Shanthi is not alone in her thinking and her precautious behaviour about using the private toilet. Human rights activist and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) Bezwada Wilson says the issue is widespread and needs to be tackled in a comprehensive manner and the answer to the question of large-scale open defecation in India did not lie in simply building toilets, without the necessary infrastructure like providing freely flowing water and sewage connections to each house.

“Women are coming outside to defecate because of various reason although many have access to toilets. The major problem behind this is, in rural areas there are no adequate water facilities and they also afraid that if once septic tank gets filled up, what will be the mechanism to clean and they have to invest money to clean,” Wilson tells Media India Group.

“People who regularly use their toilets, they need money to clean the septic tanks, which we can’t afford every time. We don’t have adequate water facilities to clean too. We get water in our homes only for three hours each in the morning and the evening for all household needs including drinking water. Every time during elections, leaders come with promises of round the clock tap water, but nothing has changed and we continue to suffer,” says Shanthi.

Wilson goes on to say that the one-dimensional thinking behind Swachh Bharat Abhiyan of it being limited only to building toilet, without addressing these vital issues of aligned infrastructure and amenities that are vital for its success.

“There is no mechanism, municipality is not doing their work, there are so many other reasons. It is the government’s responsibility to provide all the facilities to the citizens while providing toilets,” says Wilson, adding that building millions of toilets dependent on septic tanks for cleaning goes against the government’s own objective of eradication of manual scavenging as these septic tanks, especially in villages would depend upon manual scavengers for cleaning.

“Even for the people who work as a manual scavenger, the government has no programme for manual scavenging eradication. They are simply building all these non-sense toilet without any proper mechanism and that too for their own sake, not for the citizens,” claims Wilson, whose Safai Karmachari Andolan is a movement that aims to completely eradicate manual scavenging from India.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Act was prohibited in India in 1933, as a criminal offence.

Again in 2013, Indian government extended the law and clarified to include ban on use of human labour for direct cleaning of sewers, pits and septic tanks.

But in 2018, the survey of manual scavengers was conducted by National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation at the instruction of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment found that there were at least 87,913 manual scavengers in India, which was only conducted in the statutory town of 14 Indian states.

“They are not even providing any kind of other alternative employment opportunities to Safai Karmachari women, who are coming out of the scavenging. Many scavengers don’t get any other works too,” says Wilson.

Diseases come with open defecation

For long the government and various NGOs as well as multilateral bodies have been creating awareness about the immense risks to health that come with open defecation and which are rampant in India. The villagers and slum dwellers say they are aware of the risks posed by open defecation such as diarrhea, intestinal worm infections, cholera and hepatitis. And there is also a strong element of social shame attached to open defecation.

“We are four members in our family, everyone goes to office. We are ashamed to even invite someone to our home because we don’t have proper toilet facilities. Every fortnight someone in our family falls sick due to open defecation and even though we know we are risking our lives by practicing open defection, we don’t have any choice. The government should provide a proper public toilet for people in our area, that will change our live condition and then we will be able to improve our way of living in a hygienic way,” says Lakshmi, the student from Delhi.

“There are many health problems, not only for the people who practices open defection, but the most affected persons are the manual scavengers who clean all the excreta. This is highly infectious and causes all kinds of diseases, including skin diseases and leads to burning eyes and serious breathing problems,” says Bezwada.

“It is the government’s responsibility to eradicate the human manual scavenging and to solve the open defecation problem in both rural and urban areas for the protection of people’s dignity and their lives,” says Bezwada.

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