Manual scavenging is a reality and Dalit women, particularly, will be forced to shoulder the burden of cleaning dry pits.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently tweets appreciation for on-ground workers of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). One such widely shared post was an image of the secretary in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, Parameswaran Iyer, going down a double-pit toilet in a rural home and cleaning it. He was lauded because he“did not even use gloves”.

Meanwhile, thousands of sanitary workers and manual scavengers continue to go down sewers sans proper protective gears every day. Many die in the process. According to government data submitted to the Rajya Sabha earlier this year, 323 sanitation workers have perished on the job since 1993. However, the Magsaysay award-winning Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), the petitioner in the Supreme Court case on sanitation worker deaths, say they have collected information on atleast 1,560 deaths during the same period.

It would seem that the important ‘c’ in Swachh Bharat is not cleanliness but caste.

And yet, the silence of repeated governments in acknowledging caste as integral to India’s sanitation policy is resounding.


Also read: No, Modi’s Swachh Bharat is not like earlier sanitation measures, it’s much better


While Iyer’s effort may well be laudable, that it still takes such imagery to normalise the act of cleaning one’s own toilet is worrying. Diane Coffey and Dean Spears in their book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, argue that India’s open defecation problem is unique because cannot be explained by determinants like poverty, illiteracy and poor governance, alone.

The book illustrates that 46 of 55 countries with lower GDP than India, and 19 of 21 countries with a higher burden of people below the poverty line, have far lower rates of open defecation. They underline how India’s burden of open defecation is in fact, deeply entrenched in its social structures and norms. 

Cleaning of toilets has been regarded as a polluting and lowly task reserved for the lowest rungs in society, the Dalits. But the low-cost, double-pit (and very scientific) toilet that the government of India and international organisations like the WHO have been propagating is intrinsically contradictory to this ethos[CP1].

A February 2017 SBA document says that “twin-pit toilets perhaps may be the best” (design) because of their low cost, low water consumption and ease of construction. But how does a population, which would do anything to remain blissfully oblivious of how its waste is disposed, gets used to a toilet structure that necessitates it to touch the faeces, albeit in a decomposed state?


Also read: Amitabh Bachchan may be a great actor but even he can’t get Indians into toilets for Modi


The two pits in these toilets are dug below the ground level, and their inner walls are honeycombed with bricks for bacteria to decompose the faeces anaerobically. When one of these pits reaches its capacity, it is closed, and the household switches to the other pit, leaving the faeces to decompose in the former. The pits are not more than four-feet deep, and suffice for a family of 4-6 members for six years. The bacteria that decompose the faeces cannot survive beneath this height. But a common misconception in Indian villages is that deeper the pit, lesser the smell, and longer it lasts before it needs to be cleaned. This misconception is based on a value system that is embedded in caste and its relation to human faeces.  

As a result, in addition to the central government funding of Rs 12,000 for building toilets, often rural Indian households pump in more money for bigger and deeper pits – even though a pit that is too deep may be counterproductive to the requirements of anaerobic decomposition. The cost of a toilet based on the same design is about Rs 2,000 in Bangladesh, say studies. But Indians spend as much as Rs 21,000 to build these toilets.

Perhaps this is why despite aggressive government promotion, more expensive sanitation toilets outnumber these basic double pit toilets. According to the 2011 census in India, only 20 per cent of households with toilets, built ones based on the basic double pit design.

This trends again seems unique to India. The WHO estimates only 15 per cent of Indian households with toilets have double pit toilets, against 40 per cent in fellow low-income countries. Thus, governments in other countries have been able to convince more people to adopt this low-cost sanitation solution than India has.

Further, India’s sanitation policy has done precious little in nearly two decades towards setting up rural solid waste disposal systems and building water pipelines. Similarly, little has been done towards information, education and communication campaigns to spread awareness about the double-pit design and its excellent science.

As a scholar recently explained to me, historically, in urban India, the government has subsidised toilet-waste disposal, leaving the construction of toilets to people. But in rural India, the approach has been the diametrical opposite. The focus has been on subsidising toilet construction, leaving people to manage their own waste, which in turn clashes with these deep-rooted ideas of purity. Here, Bangladesh should be seen as an example to learn from.

After its huge success in tackling open defecation in less than a decade, the country is now grappling with a massive sludge management challenge due to poor sewage systems, and the dumping of waste from dry pits indiscriminately.


Also read: In mad race for targets, Modi’s Swachh Bharat could fumble the same way UPA plans did


Finally, India’s sanitation policies, including SBA, have done embarrassingly little for its foot soldiers – those who collect the waste we generate. Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson has said that the metric of ODF (open defecation free) should not be the number of toilets constructed but the number of manual scavengers in India. In the absence of any infrastructure for waste disposal, who will clean the thousands of dry toilets being built with such frenzy? He says the responsibility would fall on impoverished Dalits who society still decrees as the rightful performers of this duty.

Ironically, the mandate for identification of and welfare provisions for manual scavengers is not even within the ambit of SBA or its parent ministry of drinking water and sanitation. It is with the ministry of social justice and empowerment.

On paper, India enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, and then the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act in 2013.  From the 1993 act, the law introduced surveys to enumerate manual scavengers, wrote stringent punishments for those employing them, guaranteed a rehabilitation assistance of Rs 40,000, a financial assistance to build homes under Indira Awas Yojana, and promised protective gear for sanitation workers, among other things. But the latest survey data released in June 2018 has identified 53,236 manual scavengers, with nearly 29,000 in Uttar Pradesh alone. Till April 2017, only 12,000 of them had received financial assistance. Additionally, there has not been a single conviction for employing manual scavengers. Protective gear for municipal cleaners in most metropolitan cities remains a dream – let alone in rural areas. 

There is one other social norm linked to sanitation that deserves mention here. The burden of closing the pit and cleaning it, and fetching water, will probably fall on already overburdened women of the household. Not just that, most manual scavengers who would be employed to clean the dry toilets would possibly be Dalit women. Any attempt to integrate social norms into sanitation policy would do well to acknowledge this potentially dangerous gender tilt, and act to prevent it, even as ODF targets are celebrated.

(This is the third in a four-part series on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Read the first and second part.)

Pritha Chatterjee is a journalist and a PhD student in population health sciences at Harvard University.

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