India’s Journey to Becoming Open Defecation Free

It’s October 2, the birth anniversary of a national icon, and of perhaps the smelliest scam in our nation’s history.

The focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission in rural India, launched in October 2014 after the BJP’s landslide win in the general elections, is the building of household toilets, and moving towards an “Open Defecation Free” countryside. To this effect, the kinds of numbers this mission has brandished on the Swachh Bharat Mission website over the past three years is dizzying: Annual allocations of over Rs 9,000 crore, nearly 50 million household toilets built in the past three years, and 2.53 lakh villages and six states declared “Open Defecation Free”.

Yet the fact that the s**t doesn’t stay behind closed doors (despite Amitabh Bachchan’s charm and persuasiveness in matters of public health) is clear if one has spent any time at all in the rural countryside. In a matter as material as defecation, it is possible to see clearly the way in which social and infrastructural issues – caste, gender, location, water, electricity – mesh to make this policy extremely difficult to implement. And yet, the very complex reasons why becoming “open defecation free” is a difficult proposition are whitewashed.

In Banda district of Bundelkhand for instance, there has been an all-out, aggressive advertising drive: “Swachh BandaSunder Banda”. The new young district magistrate, Mahendra Bahadur Singh, is yearning for the beacon of an “Open Defecation Free” district, and is sparing no efforts: Wall writing, posters, banners, surprise sessions in classrooms, a dozen different toilet styles to chose from – just, whatever you do, don’t leave your stuff lying around. The SBM website claims that 62.5% of Banda has been covered by the mission.

Subsequently, Khabar Lahariya began a month-long video investigation into a few flagship campaigns and “Open Defecation Free” villages in Banda district. The investigation (above) revealed increasingly frustrated, angry residents who were blamed and humiliated for their toilet habits – the targets claimed to be achieved, or desperately sought, were bunkum.

In most cases, toilet doors do not exist, material for roofs hasn’t arrived, money that was meant to be transferred to applicants is eternally delayed. The online process of applying for a toilet is more complicated than what average non-digital folk in a “smart” city would be able to manage, let alone entire populations of electricity- and water-deprived panchayats.

This much is clear – no one is opposed to the provision of functioning sanitation, when it is provided in a way that is respectful and sensitive to people’s material realities. Instead of training the gun on entitled citizens, or making unsubstantiated claims, the government needs to reflect on the efficacy of its implementation of the Swachh Bharat mission, lest it turn out to be yet another costly, failed election vow.

Published on 01/10/2017