Shit Just Got Real or Why Targets Are Made to Be Met

A deep, hard, look at the Swachh Bharat campaign’s rural chapter and its real-time (under)ground realities.  

We’re at the cusp of it. An Open Defecation Free India by 2019. Or ODF India.

Abbreviations, as we know now, are the stuff of this regime. Jumla rajniti rocks!

But the numbers back it up too.

The numbers are huge, they are great, they are – in one word – unprecedented.

Annual budgets set aside specifically for Swachch Bharat Mission, or SBM, are said to be to the tune of 9,000 crores.

Number of household toilets built since Oct 2014, the launch of SBM: 47, 58, 1046.

Number of villages declared ODF: 2, 35,661

Number of states that have been declared as ODF States: 5 (And there are quite a few almost there, like Kerala which is marked at 99.99%).

As we all know, the Prime Minister himself takes personal interest in this particular Abhiyan. Months after being sworn in, after his landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections – which will go down in history as the “Modi wave” that changed India – Narendra Modi launched the Swachch Bharat Mission on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

The PM’s intense personal investment in the policy is the stuff of legend.

And in the past few years, we’re told again and again how important this is to him and his governance. To him, personally. How he wishes to take the lead on it, by example. That this is not merely a government campaign, answering to a crucial, essential problem – it is a noble mission.

And indeed it is.

As a nation, as a people, as a culture – excluding large parts of southern India – our notions around these very basic bodily needs are stuck in frightening time warps. Shit is not simply dirty, it is impure – with all the Vedic baggage that comes with. Remember our grandmothers taking extensive baths and changing dhotis between their ablutions and pooja-paath?

Or more recently, the question that echoed out loud in Akshay Kumar’s Toilet Ek Prem Katha – “Kya? Jis aangan mein Tulsi hai, vahaan shauch karein?”

This is why Swachhata hi Seva is a genius slogan for this campaign. As is the appropriation of Bapuji.

This culture of going outside the house to do your business is why masses feel the onus of building toilets rests on the government. If they’re telling us to stop going out onto the tracks, the fields, the jungles and build toilets inside our homes, well then, let them pay for it – is the overriding sentiment.

Not that the mission doesn’t know about this. A specific division of the yojna is dedicated to “behavioural changes” – things that the Akshay Kumar starrer addressed, big reasons for it getting the kind of support from Modi himself. We need to change how we think before we can act (and shit) accordingly, after all. Women pradhans are nominated as SBM champions hence, and Amitabh Bachchan, Vidya Balan, and Anushka Sharma make a whole lotta well-meaning noise around everyday practices. Toilets are given grand names, resonant of dignity – they are not shitpots, they are izzat ghars, they are maryada bhawans.

The District Magistrate of Banda, Mahendra Bahadur Singh, who has taken it upon himself to ensure a ”Swachh Banda, Sundar Banda” soon, told us how everyone in all the villages of Banda were now clear of the deep relationship between shit lying in the open, flies, and food.

However, the ways in which this goes down in rural Bundelkhand, pun intended, is nothing short of absurd, akin to the intended effect of say, a Marchel Duchamp installation.

The gap between on-paper efforts and on-ground realities is so mind-bogglingly huge, it is like being inside a black comedy. Like the grand elevation to champions status for those working towards making their villages ODF – unfortunately, pride as an emotion comes only with a considerable investment in one’s self-worth, often a luxury for the rural poor.

Just another toilet in rural Banda

And then there is the numbers game, everyone’s favourite sport. Like the case of Mathna Kheda, a village in Banda that had been declared ODF, or “shauch-mukt”, which upon close reporting, revealed to us that toilets approved years ago were being duplicated in the records as SBM-approved toilets.

Targets, after all, must be met.

Let’s also look, a little more closely, at the SBM Gramin chapter that sponsors your toilet – there are planned steps of the entire process and it’s all online. It includes uploading BPL cards, linking them to Aadhaar cards, and then uploading pictures at various phases of the construction of the toilet in your home – from hole to pot. As you move through the stages, the money gets transferred to your registered bank accounts. Large swathes of this population do not have those. Most do not have access to the internet, or the wherewithal to work it.

The lekhpal and pradhan, who are answerable here, assigned to liaison between people and policy on paperwork, end up working as brokers, when they do work. Their objectives being to make the most out of the deal themselves, as so many middlemen in our country. The sanctioned money for one toilet, post approval, is INR 12,000. A typical village will have 30-40 homes at the least eligible for the policy. Do the math – the pradhan already has.

Add to this the absolute lack of clarity on details coupled with a general lack of awareness – How much money are you supposed to get to just have the hole dug up? How much for the roof? How much for the brickwork? How much for the door? How do the amounts vary from gaon to kasbah to sheher, and again, how much? The answer is a big shrug.

And we’re still only at the tip of this shitty iceberg.

Because in rural Bundelkhand, what we also see every day is how shit too, has a gender. How shit too, has a caste.

Earlier this year, around the time that a Dalit village was asked to scrub and clean prior to a Yogi Adityanath visit – another big news expose had been doing the rounds. It was about the Dalits of a village in Banda who were allegedly being charged by the land-owners in whose fields they came to relieve themselves in the a.m. When we went to report on this, amidst busy-looking officials intensely involved in measurements – “the village is being mapped for a sulabh”, we were told – we found that this was not the case. Although what was happening was perhaps even more sinister. They were not being charged, no, but the unsaid understanding between the Dalits and the zamindars was that the former would work the latter’s fields for throwaway mazdoori prices. “We get double, triple the amount, if we go to other places to work”, they all said.

The complexity of gender is even more sinister here. Women can’t just sit anywhere to do their business, but that’s their problem. As are the very real possibilities of being stalked, facing sexual harassment, violence, rape, as they trek to their chosen “safe spaces” before the crack of dawn, or in the thick of the black night. And even then, if a male member of their clan, village, family, extended family happens to walk past, they need to cover their heads. “Ghunghat karna padta hai”, as Rampyari says, even if she’s taking a dump.

Ruminating on whether ODF beats this or not!

You’d call it a chickren and egg situation if you were in a kind mood, but then Modi’s machinery isn’t one to relent. The recent surge in aggression of the SBM is a case in point – all the threats about cutting power to villages that do not comply (Rajasthan), the huge fines and penalties to be imposed on whoever is spotted with a lota (Uttar Pradesh), the “lungi-khol” humiliation tactics (Jharkhand), the imposing of necessary spadework to cover up your act if you must defecate in the open (Uttar Pradesh), the shaming of children in schools so they can “teach” their parents (Delhi).

But there is an inherent naivete of sorts to even this display of power and the no-brainer logic of SBM – this build-toilets-stop-ODF mantra. Strip it of the nobility, grandness, and the do-good-ing vibe, and you’re left with an intensely complicated jangle of networks that cross through deeply ingrained prejudices that have seeped into a collective conscience, which are resistant to reformation.

At least not of the everlasting kinds. Because October 2, like troubling times, shall after all pass too.

– Pooja Pande