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With 90 lakh homeless citizens, how can India be open defecation free?

Believing the Prime Minister’s claim of Rural India being Open Defecation free is being disillusioned. India is as far from the ODF tag as is the PM’s declaration from the truth.


India Toilets ODF Claim Modi Newsline DKODING
With 90 lakh homeless citizens, how can India be open defecation free? | Newsline | DKODING | Image Credits: HT

In his October 2nd speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed India to be open defecation free. The declaration in front of a largely rural audience at Sabarmati Riverfront in Ahmedabad on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th anniversary created wide frenzy and won plaudits for the ruling BJP government’s initiative that has borne fruit so soon. However, a mere on-stage propagation of an idea doesn’t necessarily mean its true.

In a country that still has over 90 lakh people living without a roof on their heads, it would be foolish to think they all have closed toilet facilities.

Supporting his claim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that 99 percent of India’s rural villages have declared themselves open defecation free. The PM further said that India has ‘amazed’ the world by making 11 crore toilets within 60 months which cater to 60 crore people. However, thousands still have to defecate in open, especially in impoverished colonies and it’s certainly due to the unavailability of toilets.



Government’s Open Defecation Free Tag for Rural India

The government’s open defecation free tag for rural homes is based on two parameters. Firstly, to be classified as open defecation free, all the households in a village should have toilets. Secondly, the village environment should have no visible human excreta. As per the Swachha Bharat Mission data as of September 26th, all Indian villages have declared themselves ODF. Further, 90 percent have undergone first-level verification as per the data.



However, most villages haven’t undergone the second-level verification. In fact, the numbers are misleadingly low. Uttar Pradesh has over 97,000 villages and only 10 percent have been verified for a second time. In Odisha’s 47,000 villages and 9 other states, not even one village has had second-level verification. which have not carried out any second-level verification.


First Level Verification Open Defecation Free India Newsline DKODING
Most villages haven’t undergone the second-level verification. | Newsline | DKODING Studio

As per one source close to the mission, only 40 percent of the toilets that the government claims have actually been built. Moreover, as per one source close to the mission, only 40 percent of the toilets that the government claims have actually been built. On the other hand, as per media reports, the SBM database saw the deletion of households as the targets were too stiff to be met and were thus reduced by simply deleting entries in the baseline survey.

The flawed government data on open defecation in India

The hypocrisy of government’s pursuit of the open defecation free tag is proved by a recent incident where two Dalit children of 10 and 12 were beaten to death for defecating next to a road in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh. In the SMB data, their village had been declared open defecation free. So how did the two boys not have access to a toilet? Similarly, a woman who had gone with other women to an open field to defecate in Icchwapur, Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh was later found dead in a case of ‘honour’ killing. However, she had to go out in the open in Rae Bareli, a district where all villages have been declared ODF.

A number of states updated records and declared thousands of villages as open defecation free only in the last four days before the Indian PM’s October 2nd declaration.

Furthermore, dubiousness surfaces in the records of the government. As per The Wire report, in Odisha, over 13,000 villages were verified and declared ODF in four days. Likewise, 3,202 villages were verified and declared ODF in flood-hit Bihar in the last 4 days. In Uttar Pradesh, it was 3,850 villages. There’s a similar story in records of many other North Indian states. And to top it all, only 24 percent of the 6 lakh plus villages across India have undergone a second verification, an important criterion to ensure the sustainability of ODF status under SBM guidelines.



The ‘Real’ ground reality of an ODF Rural India

Social workers around the country tell a completely different story with respect to the open defecation free claim. Many villages only rely on community toilets instead of individual latrines in each household. The ratio for such community toilets to people they cater can be as big as 1 toilet for 100 people. Consequently, these toilets are often filthy and reek of uncleaned feces. In such a scenario, defecating in open becomes much safer than the disease-laden community latrines. Furthermore, community toilets remain closed at night, limiting their usage.


Open Defecation Free India Newsline DKODING
A public toilet built under the SBM, which residents say has been shut for over a year, in Guladahalli village in Karnataka, India, on April 30, 2019. | Newsline | DKODING | Image Credits: Reuters/Sachin Ravikumar

Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, who claims that the SBM is an anti-poor project, says, “India has around 90 lakh homeless people, how can they have homes? How can India be open defecation free?” Furthermore, the government’s claim doesn’t gel well enough with the perpetual caste and communal based approach to defecation followed by many rural households.



In many north Indian villages, forward caste groups still refrain from using toilets in the premises of their homes due to orthodox purity norms. Thus, while the project may claim to have built enough toilets, it hasn’t changed the mindset of millions. This is a glaring loophole in the Indian ODF mission.

Similar Jumla to India being Manual Scavenging free

The government claims that the Swachh Bharat Mission’s main beneficiary is the weaker economic section. But it’s hardly the vote bank the initiative appeals to. As Wilson says, “Soon, they will declare these homeless people criminals for defecating in open when they don’t even have a choice.” Wilson also claimed that sanitation workers who had to be central to the mission have been ignored, “What has happened to manual scavenging abolition? Who dies in gutters? How is it not linked to caste? There is a caste link to Swachh Bharat. One and a half lakh Dalit women still carry human litter every day.”



Furthermore, in media reports from many villages across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Odisha, newly-constructed, shabby SBM toilets were being used as storehouses or abandoned dumping yards. Moreover, the majority of these toilets are without a proper water connection. This again is against the SBM guidelines which necessitate water for washing hands. However, most of these toilets remain inoperative due to no water facilities.



What does the Prime Minister’s declaration achieve?

So, while the government does claim that rural India is open defecation free, the ground reality makes the claim blatant exaggeration. But one positive of the 2nd October declaration by Prime Minister Modi is that he was able to fulfill, or at least claim to have fulfilled, one of his 2014 promises.



Consequently, the claim also relieves the BJP government on further bothering with the issue for the time being. This sums up the center’s approach wherein it attaches certain parameters to an idea of growth that it concocted itself. And no matter if the mission is actually achieved or not, trumpeting it in the open serves the government’s purpose.

The PM’s claim relieves the bureaucracy from further bothering with the issue even if it is far from being resolved.

The Swachh Bharat mission is no doubt a phenomenal endeavour which has drastically improved sanitation standards of India. But flawed statistics and unchallenged claims like such from the government fuel a moral crisis. A crisis where the executive is happy to ignore an issue that’s still prevalent. And that’s only because the country’s leader has declared that India is free from the problem of open defecation. This is indeed hurtful and a joke which mocks the citizens of India. Be it ones supporting the opposition or standing with the party in power. Even if Prime Minister proclaims, the majority knows that India is still far from being open defecation free.



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