The ‘Swachh Bharat’ Movement keeps women, Dalits trapped in the Manuwadi mind-frame

Glossy pamphlets, catchy slogans tell us building toilets at home is all about protecting the honour of bahu-betis. And who else but Dalits will clean them later?

manual Scavengers

As a development professional, I have walked into the offices of many NGOs and read many a lop-sided, glossy pamphlet with slogans that have made me flinch. As someone working on hygiene and sanitation issues, one among those slogans has been seared into my memory: “Humne yeh liya hait haan, shauchalyamei hi bahu-beti ka samman” (Toilets ensure the dignity of our mothers and daughters).

I have no qualms in admitting I was, up until a year ago, a naïve and idealistic social worker in-the-making. At the risk of sounding self-absorbed, I would also like to add that I am a bit of a paradox. Internally, I have raging self-doubt, and an even more grim suspicion of others. The nature of my job has made me look at everything, and everyone, with a critical eye. And yet, externally, and on a day-to-day basis of my lived experiences, I have often exhibited a fierce faith in humanity – I have tried to understand the apathy of the Indian policeman and I have given my co-workers the benefit of the doubt when they have perpetuated patriarchal ideas to achieve social justice.

Some of this may have changed in the last year. I continue to try to understand the cruelty of the policeman whose hands are tied and who serves as a pawn in the hands of the government, acting out on the instructions doled out “from above” without undermining their active, and not always unwilling, role as a cog in a draconian machinery. However, I have been pushed to disbelief in the nobility of development players and my long-held conviction, that people’s political affiliations are irrelevant as long as they are actively working towards social change, has been challenged and violently obliterated.

Two months ago, my team and I conducted a district-wide survey to determine the knowledge of, attitudes towards, and behaviors associated with, sanitation and hygiene in the villages of Lucknow. Around 90 percent of the female respondents (both women and adolescent girls) confirmed they felt increasingly unsafe when defecating in the open, and many had been victims of heckling and harassment. This is the reason rural women defecate in groups, darkly correspondent to the urban trend of women travelling in packs to the loo to avoid harassment and feel safe.

In fact, a lack of an adequate number of toilets has been identified as one of the causative factors of rapes in the country (Amarnath Tewary, India Bihar Rapes Caused by Lack of Toilets, May 9, 2013, BBC ). In a chilling case in May 2014, two Dalit teenage girls were gang-raped and hanged from a mango tree after they went to relieve themselves deep into the night (Sonal Bhadoria, India’s Shame! Sisters’ Rape Sparks Global Outrage, May 30, 2014, India Times).

All hell broke loose. The international media was abuzz with distasteful headlines and India – the land of no toilets – assumed center stage with its peculiar, other-worldly problem the international community could de-construct as “very alarming” and “very Indian”. Soon, “toilet” became synonymous with honor. As a WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) professional, I understand the indispensable need for toilets. Half of India’s population defecates outside (UNICEF India, Eliminate Open Defecation).

My field work has produced evidence that a lack of separate toilet for girls and boys causes girls to miss school during their periods. One can only imagine the extent to which such a trend impedes their learning and affects their overall educational development and future employability. Lack of toilets, and open defecation, also leads to fecal borne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera that claims the lives of lakhs of children per year.

And so, toilets can improve our health and educational outcomes, protect the environment, boost India’s gross national product, and save lives. But to expand the toilet argument to make room for an “honor fulfillment” clause is not only disingenuous but also dangerous. A recent Rakshabandhan sanitation campaign in select villages in Lucknow promoted the message that a “protective” brother must build his sister a toilet to keep her dignity intact (Shailvee Sharda, “On Rakhi, Men Gift Toilets to Their Sisters”, August 18, 2016, The Times of India).

While defecating in the open is surely not a “dignified” act for anyone, male or female, such dissemination strategies posit a lack of toilet as a leading cause of rape and tries to achieve a noble end goal through corrupt and counter-revolutionary notions.

Ever since the Modi government came to power, not only the political landscape, but the social landscape, too, has changed dramatically. This is because Modi’s politics is deeply rooted in certain social attitudes, and it is becoming harder to disassociate the two in the common population that constitute his distinguished vote-bank. In the last few months, Modi’s brazen disregard for vigilante-style caste-based violence has only reinforced what Modi’s critics proclaimed all along – the Bharatiya Janata Party is a pro-Brahman, casteist party set on making India a Hindu nation with support from RSS – its ideological ally, PR machine and fairy godmother. Modi came into prominence after the 2002 Gujarat riots that claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims. Many were displaced, their houses burnt and their lives, as they knew it destroyed. Women were tortured and raped in ways unimaginable, and beyond the scope of India’s rape laws at the time.

It was one of the darkest periods in the history of the country and Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, is largely believed to have instigated and enabled the violence. Before the 2014 election that brought the BJP into power at the Center, Modi was a reluctantly discussed persona, and the Gujrat pogrom was not an issue people, especially those who regularly moved in ideologically diverse crowds, wanted to discuss. Even after his name was cleared by the SIT under still-dubious circumstances, and with many activists, academicians and survivors crying bluff over the verdict and proclaiming that evidence had been suppressed, Modi did not yet become a household name – but all that was about to change.

Ever since the Modi govt. assumed the reins of the country, the stage has been set for unabashed polarisation, divisiveness and moral posturing. The population has always been divided on the issue of caste-based reservations. However, never before has the country seen such proud and fierce declarations of one’s caste as “supreme” to another. Over 89 years after BR Ambedkar’s “Mahad Satyagrah” under which he led Dalits to draw water from a tank formerly denied to them on grounds of their “untouchable” status, villages in India continue to de divided on caste lines, determining who gets to fetch water from a well and who is too “impure” to be allowed the facility (Times of India, “Dalits Can’t Draw Water from Well Here, April 14, 2016, Paragraph 3).

Untouchability persists, and sanitation is an issue that directly reaches the heart of the matter. Dalits have been incessantly discriminated against on the grounds of uncleanliness owing to their poor economic, financial, educational and social conditions. Furthermore, with all the hullabaloo around the usage of toilets, the Swachh Bharat Mission has failed to address the crucial question of cleanliness of toilets – who is cleaning these toilets?

Surely, the age-old custom of manual scavenging and toilet-cleaning by the safayi karamchaaris (sweepers), the majority of whom belong to the Dalit community, prevails. Can not a grand program like the SBM address this issue head on, and initiate discussions around the development of technologically advanced machineries to clean sewers and effectively address the issue of the freedom of Dalits from modern-day slavery? Can not the government’s commendable marketing machinery take the opportunity to disseminate anti-caste messages?

The SBM, however, is invested in perpetuating patriarchy by making it an issue of honor, and casteism by shying away from the caste-conundrum, and many development players are playing along because it is coming from a religiously motivated political party that serves their agenda and prescribes to their values, and the values of their forefathers.

Modi’s advent has sharply divided the country. He has his supporters and his staunch critics, but he has also created a curious faction – the right-wing good Samaritans. Unlike the hardliner Hindutva brigade, these individuals are not blood-thirsty fanatics. They are honest in their work and they genuinely care for the future of the nation. However, they are also dedicated Modi supporters and do not think a Hindu Rashtra (nation) would be such a bad thing.

They think the SBM is noble in its mission. As long as they are able to implement the government programs successfully, provide toilet facilities to the economically disenfranchised, evade uncomfortable questions of caste, class, patriarchy, nationalism, minorities and Kashmir, and keep their belief in the man and his divine horsemen intact, they have lived a good life in the service of the nation. In their self-congratulatory bubble, they mindlessly implement one program after the other without addressing the deeply rooted social problems of the country.

As development professionals, it is our duty to undertake the difficult walk to complete social transformation by addressing the root causes of the issues, even if they are seeped in our cultural and religious identities. Development professionals implementing the SBM across India must unite on a common platform and ask the government questions about social inequity in the development sphere. Implementing social welfare programs while holding tight to our privilege makes hypocrites of us all.

As long as we continue to give our inherent prejudices precedence over an unequivocal submission to social justice, we will not progress, and the most socially marginalized factions of our society will continue to suffer, waiting for one program after another to provide shallow respite, while continuing to raise a question on their identities every day.

(Samiya Javed is a water, sanitation and hygiene development professional from Lucknow, India).



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