The Myth of the “Shauch-Mukt” Village

Or the Joke that is the rural chapter of the Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan

Akhilesh Kumar is a young, charming Block Coordinator of the Swacch Bharat Mission at Badokhar Khurd block of Banda district. He has a disarming stutter, and exudes a moving drive when it comes to defecation related development in his block. Kumar says that their aim is to make the block “ODF” (Open Defecation Free) by March 2018, clearly Kumar’s favourite word. “Already,” he says, “7 revenue villages and 2 gram panchayats have been made ‘ODF’. Soon, 5 more panchayats will be made ‘ODF’.”

So effective did he sound that we couldn’t wait to breathe the air of an ODF village with our own noses. So we set off for Mathna Kheda village – around 5 kilometres from the block headquarters by tempo, and then another 3 on foot – that has been declared ‘shauch mukt’ (shorthand that we cannot help but giggle at, each and every time it comes up) – Open Defecation Free.

Step 1 of dismantling the ODF propaganda: Spot the lota.

Rampyari, an elderly woman in a terribly fashionable sari, a burst of flowers bounded by red stripes, says there’s no toilet in her house. And it’s no fun, she says, because good social form says, when a man passes by, a lady’s expected to stand up, whether she’s busy at it or not. Rampyari finds that a bit much, so just keeps sitting.

Ram Prakash, another resident, says it like it is. “I live here, some people have toilets in their homes, some don’t. They take their lotas and they go out.”

Ramesh Kumar, a man of numbers, says it’s patently clear that “20% of the village” goes out to shit. He’s “100% sure” of this. When we ask him who these 20% are (it’s what we call a trick question), his aquiline nose wavers just a tiny bit, and then he catches on. “Men, women, children – everyone.  We had an open meeting in the village on the 11th of July, and some people’s names were written down [who did not have toilets in their homes]. Let’s see, maybe they’ll get made… I don’t think they will.”

Rajrani is a woman in black and white who could instill fear into any pradhan, and definitely made our phone quiver a little. “There’s been a toilet in my home since I was married. My son is 16 years old now. Have a look at it – is it in any condition to shit in? Leaving aside the smallest children, everyone goes out to shit here.  My husband doesn’t live here all the time. We go out to shit, and if people pass by, we just pull our saris over our faces. The pradhan tells me that we should get the toilet fixed, but I refuse. Why should I – shouldn’t he? These NGO workers come and tell us, those who go out to shit, should eat their shit. So I say to the pradhan, who should eat it, me or you? Who is the one being dishonest here, me or you? I say it openly.” We like the use of the word, openly. (Many residents, the pradhan included, spoke about being rudely awoken at dawn by some NGOs workers set to change the toilet habits of Mathana Khera. We couldn’t meet anyone from the said NGO, but we’re on to them.)

Rajrani waves her hand (and we back off quickly) at the toilet in the background, with a faded curtain failing to hide its state of disrepair.

Step 2: Show how numbers can lie.

According to the Swacch Bharat Mission records, 188 toilets have been built in this village. A good number for a village with 991 registered voters. Until you realize that this is the panchayat’s ‘life time’ record of toilets ever made, those made (and paid for) by for individuals with dreams of toilets in their homes, or those made under any other scheme or state government. Those look like storm-ravaged tenements, and no one in their right mind would want to use them for a crap. Even the pradhan wants nothing to do with them. Funny then, that they’re counted not only in one, but multiple records for toilet construction.

Dharmendra, a sharp man with a definite French beard, airs an opinion that seems to get to the heart of things. “Toilets that have been made in 2011, and the ones that have been made this year, if you look at the lists of people who’ve got them, you’ll see they’re duplicated. The people who had them made in 2011, have been listed in 2016-17 as well. And the ones who are entitled to get toilets, haven’t. They’ve been with petitions to the CDO, to the DM, but nothing has come of it.”

As we panned the village, we realized this to be true. Many toilets sported Swacch Bharat signage painted over clearly older signage marking the date of construction.

Step 3: Corner the pradhan

When we went to visit the Pradhan, one Ramesh Babu – a hamster-looking chap with a startlingly fluorescent saffron saafa – we hit him straight and hard with the data. We’ve heard that 80% people here have toilets and 20% defecate outdoors. Do you agree?, we ask. His gaze wavers, and then dips down, “Yes, there are 4-5 people who go outdoors. I’ve tried to reason with them, but they don’t listen. Now what to do?” His hamster eyes narrow, “There will be an investigation.”

We’re suitably impressed, because let’s face it, pradhans ordering investigations are rare, leave alone those that intend to follow people to the toilet. What kind of investigation then?, we persist bravely. ‘We’ll take it up at the Block”, he says, “Say that there are these people who have toilets in their homes and are still going out to shit.” And what if they don’t have toilets? “No such thing,” he says, “Oh, yes, there are a few who work outside the village… maybe those don’t have. We’re instructed to just get those toilets built for people who are present.”

When we asked whether more toilets were going to be constructed, he said no, and that now the village was ODF. Only the faintest pause, and then, “For the one or two people who don’t have toilets, we’ll make them and then that’s it.”

A few rounds later, pradhan sahib has grown a distinct sense of confidence, in the way that rodents have when they know the terrain well, even if it is a terrain strewn with traps. Is it true that the lists of people with toilets have been duplicated with those who already had received them? “Now this was decided when the ADO (Panchayat) and the Secretary had come for a visit. If you want any more information, it’ll be available at the block. I don’t know anything about it.”

Final word then – Pass the buck as always, not my shit to dodge to after all.