Whistle-blowing on Open Defecation in India

A good article.

Many years ago, gigantic dams were said to be temples of modern India. Years later, we have significantly scaled down our ambitions and decided that it is going to be the humble household toilet. Successive political regimes have paid it their obeisance through generous grants. A case in point is the budgetary promise of a whopping Rs 40 billion to ensure that every Indian has a toilet. Moreover, the government had decided to get 5.3 million latrines constructed by the time it completed 100 days in office. This urgency was prompted by the embarrassing fact that a nation which recently sent a mission to Mars also accounts for almost 59 per cent of the total global population defecating in the open.

When public embarrassment and ridicule drive policy, its execution is driven by desperation. In recent years, NGOs and state governments have attempted to send those who defecate in the open in urban and rural India scurrying into toilets by shaming them in public. It started with equipping children with whistles, which they would blow at any villager caught relieving themselves in the open. Later it took on newer forms — in Satara in Maharashtra, the ‘Good Morning' campaign witnessed volunteers hiding in areas where people defecated in the open and detaining whoever was caught. School bands were made to play in front of ‘toiletless' households to shame them into building one. In the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the government put up hoardings which show villagers and dogs defecating in the open side by side, and exhorting villagers to not behave like their four-legged counterparts. Under the ‘ Maryada ' campaign in MP, each village is to set up a sanitation monitoring committee which takes photographs and videos of villagers defecating in the open and threatens a public screening unless they agree to build or use a toilet.

Allied forces

While sanitation campaigns in rural India seem to be doing well in promoting dignity by taking it away from people, urban India is not far behind. Masked vigilantes in Mumbai, manning a bright yellow water tanker, are sneaking up on unsuspecting people urinating in public and turning the water hose on them. As the victims make desperate efforts to escape, a crowd gathers around.

In the history of sanitation drives in India, instead of turning against each other, people led by example to bring about change. Sant Gadge Baba carried a broom and swept gutters and streets in the villages he visited. This simple act had a lasting impact on villagers who were unaccustomed to seeing someone doing this voluntarily. In Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), prior to Partition, Mahatma Gandhi had done something unique. When his political opponents defecated on the narrow pathways to prevent his entry into riot-affected villages, he ignored pleas to take a different route and proceeded to clean up the pathways himself. He did this a few more times; the defecation stopped.

Times have changed. No action has been taken against the Mumbai vigilantes. If citizens are encouraged to shame one another, such vigilantism can be seen as State-endorsed. A look at other dimensions of public health would paint a different picture. For example, the total number of public urinals in New Delhi is only 3,200 (out of which only 130 are for women). The population of the city in 2014 is approximately 17 million. Public toilets are poorly lit and dysfunctional. Over half the city's population lives in slums. The unavailability of sanitation measures means they use roads and pavements to do their business, just like the rural poor do with railway tracks. Toilets are being constructed in a great hurry in villages; they are rarely used owing to bad design and inferior quality.

The sanitation drive in India now is a tale of citizens seeing one another as the problem rather than as allies. Will a drive for a fully sanitized India require one section of society to lose empathy for the others?