However, at the time of this incident, the Indian media chose to devote far more attention to another event. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was honoured with the “Global Goalkeeper” award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Swachh Bharat Mission and his efforts to improve sanitation in India. It is difficult to focus on the irony in the face of this tragedy.
As his first major campaign in his first tenure as PM, Narendra Modi kicked off the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) on 2 October 2014, when he announced his aim to make India “open defecation free” within the next five years to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
While the practice of open defecation has reduced in India, the country is by no means open defecation free, despite likely announcements to the contrary Wednesday. The intention behind this campaign was noble, the goal was clearly outlined, and the public opinion was largely positive – but the campaign is poorly designed.
Cracks in Swachh Bharat mission
The fatal flaw was the Swachh Bharat Mission’s disproportionate focus on constructing toilets instead of improving the overall sanitation in the country.
This decision, early on, placed the entire governance focus on providing inputs instead of delivering outcomes. By focusing almost entirely on inputs (toilets), the Modi government has very conveniently shifted the goal post from providing sanitation to simply building and distributing toilets – a task that can be more easily tracked, measured, and completed.
In the last five years, ministers and bureaucrats have been shouting out figures on the number of toilets built and distributed, instead of informing people about the extent to which sanitation has improved. This conflation of toilets and sanitation went mostly unnoticed – because who would want to defecate in the open if they received toilets for free?
In their book Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears argue that in India people prefer open defecation to basic latrines because the latter needs to be emptied out manually or pumped out by simple machines, which are unacceptable to high-caste Hindus. Latrines are considered as polluting both the individual and the house and are historically associated with untouchability.
This is not news to people living in villages and the peri-urban areas because they experience caste bias every day, and where and how they defecate do not escape their caste identity. The preference for open defecation is so prevalent in India that a mainstream movie Toilet: Ek Prem Katha was made to spread awareness. But the government designed the SBM as if the caste system in India does not exist or matter. And it is because of this sin of omission, that certain aspects of the SBM have consequently led to the oppression of Dalits.
Dalits at the receiving end
There are at least three different ways through which the campaign has worsened Dalit oppression
First, an increase in the number of toilets without the accompanying improvement in the sanitation infrastructure in the form of sewage systems, plumbing, septic tanks, sanitation workers and equipment, etc. requires people to clean out the toilets, often manually.
Upper-caste Hindus are willing to use toilets but would avoid cleaning them because of their fear of getting “polluted” – thus, increasing the prevalence of manual scavenging.
People who belong to castes associated with manual scavenging are denied other employment opportunities. They are economically forced into an oppressive practice that further robs them of equal social status and agency.
Since the SBM did not make big investments beyond constructing toilets, there was little effort to improve the conditions of manual scavengers. There have been several instances where manual scavengers die when they work with untreated fecal matter without any equipment or protection. In this regard, the government has blood on its hands.
Dalits denied access to public goods, services
A second issue, which is not restricted to the SBM, is that when it comes to the delivery of necessary public goods and services, Dalits become the easy targets of exclusion.
One of the two children murdered last week belonged to a household that did not receive a toilet under the SBM and were probably denied because they were Dalits.
While upper-caste Hindus may choose to defecate in the open to avoid having to clean toilets, Dalits have no option but to defecate in the open because they are deliberately denied access to public goods and services.
Under the SBM, various states impose fines and sanctions for defecating in the open. Dalits and Adivasis are more likely to face these sanctions. In this sense, the SBM can be coercive and exacerbate problems faced by Dalits and Adivasis.
Swachh Bharat worsening caste prejudice
The third relates to a caste problem that is much more sinister. For upper caste Hindus, open defecation, despite having access to free toilets, is a caste privilege — one that preserves their purity.
According to upper caste Hindus, Dalits and Adivasis have no such rightful claim to purity, and therefore have a lesser claim to defecate in the open. Last week, this social evil resulted in the murder of two children.
It is important to understand the deep caste entanglements spawned by the SBM, especially in rural areas, because urban elites designing and supporting these policies are completely unaware of how a well-intentioned campaign is not just less effective, but is also actively becoming a tool of caste oppression.
To make the Swachh Bharat Mission a success, the Modi government needs to extend the scope of the campaign beyond constructing toilets to improving the sanitation infrastructure, keeping in mind that a large number of sanitation workers belong to the Dalit community.
PM Modi may prematurely declare India open defecation free, but the murder of two Dalit children as a punishment for open defecation shows that the India celebrating Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary has neither achieved cleanliness nor achieved godliness.
The author is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US. Views are personal.