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Mission Madness

In their desperation, officials are adopting coercive ways to stop open defecation. There are many ethical and practical challenges in achieving the target.

Mission Madness

The morning sun has just begun creeping over the horizon of Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, an illegal settlement in Rajasthan's Pratapgarh district. Three municipal council employees and Nagar Parishad Com missioner Ashok Jain have their eyes on people coming out of the shanties. They start clicking photographs as soon as four women squat down to perform the morning ablution in an open field. Or, at least, that's what the women thought who start screaming for help as the officials approach the field. Zafar Hussain, a social activist in his mid-40s who happened to be in the nearby area, rushes to their rescue. The officials do not like the interference, and a violent altercation ensues. Hours later, Hussain is declared dead. He is survived by two daughters and wife Rasheeda.

Down To Earth (DTE) visited the colony two weeks after the incident. Anger was still palpable among the residents despite an eerie silence prevailing over the region. Death certificate of Hussain states he died from "cardiovascular failure". But Ajay Saxena, an advocate fighting for justice for Hussain's family, claims, "The officials brutally kicked, punched and beat Zafar, which caused his death." People from the colony say Hussain fell victim to the aggressive and unethical ways officials are following to bag open defecation-free (ODF) status for the district under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), a flagship programme of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre which is directly monitored by the Prime Minister. The residents also say that for the SBM officials, photographing people in objectionable position is the simplest way to compel them to change their morning routine.
Zahreena, an eye witness to the clash between Hussain and the officials, says, "Earlier this month, Chachaji wrote a memorandum to the Nagar Parishad opposing public shaming of women who defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Now, no one would dare speak up for our dignity. Defecating in the open is not a matter of choice for us," says Dhaku Bai, another resident. "People here either work as daily wage labourers or at local shops. How can toilet construction cross someone's mind who struggles to make ends meet, lives in a dilapidated hut with no land of his own and depends on leaking municipal pipe lines for water," asks Bai. In March this year, three families in Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, including Bai's, volunteered to build toilets under SBM. "So far, I have spent Rs 18,000, but received Rs 8,000 of the promised Rs 12,000. I'll be able to complete it only after I get the remaining money," she says.
Though the government constructed a community toilet in the colony three years ago, Bai says it is much cleaner and safer to defecate in the open than using those. Her resentment is not unfounded. The community toilet, meant to cater to the 3,000 people of Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, has only 10 units. In the absence of water supply, the toilets remain soiled and clogged.
District magistrate Neha Giri, whose office is barely 2 km from the settlement, says work under SBM is yet to begin in a full-fledged manner in the district as it was formed in 2008. "We are waiting for the baseline survey to be completed," she says.
Throughout her conversation with DTE, Giri remained tight-lipped about what led to Hussain's death and what the officials were doing near the colony in the wee hours. Since no arrest was made till the magazine went to press, DTE cannot confirm the allegations.
The incident nevertheless highlights that of late, the foot soldiers of SBM, right from the district administration to municipal and panchayat functionaries, are using coercive tactics to make people abandon their age-old habit and embrace new ethos. A close analysis of the measures reminds one of what India witnessed during the 1975 Emergency—to embark on an ambitious population control programme some 6.2 million poor Indian men were forcefully sterilised in just a year; 2,000 died from botched operations.
But why the intimidation?
SBM foot soldiers are wielding whatever stick they can lay their hands on—from blowing whistles to denying welfare benefits
To understand this, we first need to understand what the ODF status means and why the foot soldiers of SBM are trying to bag it for their districts. According to the UN data, every morning about 600 million people across India walk to the fields, roadsides, railway tracks, banks of water bodies, or any other outdoor place to relieve themselves; 87 per cent of them are from rural areas. Germs present in their faeces then spread out to infect others. This is a major reason India fares worse than several poorer countries on human development indicators, including infant deaths. This is also the reason a large fraction of children in India are underweight and stunted and the country has failed to eradicate debilitating diseases like polio and cholera despite international cooperation.
To improve the quality of life, the government for the past three decades has been trying to provide sanitation facility to all its citizens—it first launched the Central Rural Sanitation Programme in 1986. The scope of the programme was expanded in 1999 and Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) was launched. In 2012, the government revamped TSC to Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), which continued till late 2014 before being renamed Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (or SBM as it is known today) by NDA.
In 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India published an audit of TSC and NBA, which says 48-56 per cent of the households did not have toilets. Of the toilets built since 1986, over 20 per cent were lying defunct and used as storerooms or cattle sheds. The NDA government claims that SBM has been designed to ensure that people not only build toilets but also use those. "Unlike the previous sanitation programmes, SBM focuses on the behavioural change which has been a major challenge in moving towards a clean status," says Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary of the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. This is for the first time the Ministry is counting the number of villages and districts that are becoming open-defecation-free every day, adds Iyer.
At the last count on July 5, 2017, some 149 of the 707 districts were declared ODF and 64 million toilets were to be built before October 2, 2019—the deadline by which Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants India to attain ODF status, to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary. To achieve the target, India needs to build one toilet per second. While achieving the target seems highly improbable—India will take another three years to achieve the target if it continues to build toilets at the rate it was building during 2016-17—it does indicate one thing: the mounting pressure on district collectors and panchayat functionaries to construct toilets on a war footing and persuade people to use those. And at this very juncture, a social and health objective assumes the form of a diktat.
Social activists tell DTE that the pressure is so high that SBM foot soldiers are wielding whatever stick they can lay their hands on—from blowing whistles at those defecating in the open to denial of ration from the public distribution system (PDS) and social welfare benefits, and arresting offenders under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.
THE UNSAID DIKTAT
None of the coercive measures so authoritatively used by SBM officials is part of the SBM guidelines, which say the behavioural changes should be brought about through "intensive IEC (information, education, and communication) and advocacy, with the participation of NGOs/Panchayati Raj Institutions/resource organisations". DTE analysis shows that in 2016-17, the government spent 0.8 per cent of the funds allocated for awareness programmes against 8 per cent recommended in the guidelines. In districts, such as Puri in Odisha, neither the district collector nor SBM coordinator was aware of sanitation-related IEC programmes. Worse, some tactics used by SBM officials violate rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
For instance, Kapasi village in Chhattisgarh's Balod district uses CCTV cameras to stop people from defecating in the open. The village panchayat slaps a fine of Rs 500 on those found defecating in the open. It also awards people who report about the offenders. Similarly, in West Bengal's Nadia district, the district administration and a few gram panchayats have set up "wall of shame" in the village on which the names and photographs of those defecating in the open are pasted. The steps have helped Kapasi to be declared the first ODF village in the district and Nadia as the first ODF district in the state. "These are clear violations of right to privacy guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution, which says, 'No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law'," says Prasanta Kumar Hota, executive director of Solidarity for Social Equality, human rights organisation in Odisha.
(Views are of Down to Earth.)

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