Sunday, December 25, 2016

India’s Elite and the “Technocratic” understanding of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Manzoor Ali

Envisaged by the intellectuals, the ‘dominant idea’ or ‘value system’ per se reaches the masses (lower classes) through pioneer efforts by the middle-class professionals. Most of the times, these groups work in tandem with each other- to consolidate their socio-economic status or to maintain status-quo. In fact, “traditional intellectuals” shape-up and help in evolving society in a particular way. Due to their advantageous class position, they influence the character, nature and outlook of any society. Their effort has been to produce hegemonic discourse of the class/caste to which they belong. They produce narratives and counter-narratives in favor of their ‘people/class’.

The colonial encounter between inner/spiritual and outer/material world was well highlighted by Partha Chatterjee in Nation and Its Fragments. According to him bengali ‘Bhadralok’ have changed its position on modernity. One example would be Keshav Chandra Sen. Representing the ‘middle-ness’ of the middle class, he was initially an admirer of English rationality but after his visit to England he was a changed man. In his later works he shows drawbacks in the English system. Mahatma Gandhi’s refusal of mechanized modern civilization and returning to Hindu system was another such example. The political Hindu community got consolidated under the leadership of upper caste throughout the renaissance. It aimed to go back into, rather recreate the Vedic period in its pure form. The charges of ‘traditionalism’ and ‘superstition’ put against them by the modernists were defended by showcasing value and moral in so called Vedic systems.

The upper class/caste nationalists were repulsed by India’s oriental image as ‘land of snake charmers’ and ‘weak-people’. Upper caste Hindu nationalists came up with the idea of “India being golden bird” sometime in history. Now, look at this image. Was it really true for all the people? Actually, in history, the concept of ‘Hindu’ and ‘India’ were absent and both are recent phenomena. The society has been hierarchically structured on Varna system. The “broken people”, who were outside the caste system, have faced worst form of human rights violation. India could hardly be called a “golden bird” for the majority of people. During the formative stage of Hindu nationalism, Britishers mocked Indian men as being effeminate. To refute that idea, Hindu upper castes came up with an image of “motherland”, which needs to be rescued from foreigners like British and Mughals. Hence, Cynthia Enloe in ‘Bananas, Beaches and Bases’ argues that ‘Nationalism has typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hope’.

The imprint of Indian upper class and intelligentsia can be seen on all spheres, starting from culture to commerce. The tag of underdevelopment, the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ has been source of embarrassment to many of Indian elite and hence, countered. The new middle class took the opening of economy in 1991 as an opportunity to shred the image of ‘underdevelopment’. The reform was presented as panacea to the masses. The idea was to move from ‘bullock to bullet’. Malls with international life style brands, music, foods, and flyovers in cities have been added to enhance the pride of upper and middle class in front of their western counterparts. However, this global integration of India has also globalized India’s shame; social and economic facts which take away the shine of this “development”. One of these facts is the widespread practice of open defecation in India.  

72nd round of the NSS (2015) estimates that 52.1 per cent of people in rural India yet defecate in open as compared to 7.5 per cent in urban India. The international studies and global agenda like Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been highlighting the lack of basic amenities to the disadvantaged section of the population. Highlights of filthiness and open defecation practices have been discouraging to the country’s elite, who espoused India to be a super power. Hence, elites immediately appropriated the government’s efforts of clean India (Swachh Bharat). On each 2 October, the anniversary of SBA (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) comes a photo-ops moment for most of the celebrities.

However, the debate is not about the merit and de-merit of elites’ support to the SBA. Like development, any support for SBA is considered noble. Diarrhea is the third leading cause of childhood mortality in India, and is responsible for 13% of all deaths per year in children of less than 5 years of age. Lack of toilets remains one of the leading causes of illness and death among children. India loses almost Rs. 2.4 trillion a year due to inadequate sanitation. “Under the health-related impact of Rs. 1.75 trillion (US$38.5 billion), diarrhea is the largest contributor, amounting to two-thirds of the total impact…Even conservative estimates (based on economic impacts of diseases only) show that poor households bear the maximum brunt of inadequate sanitation. The poorest 20 percent households living in urban areas bear the highest per capita economic impacts of inadequate sanitation of Rs. 1,699 (US$37.5)—this is 75 percent more than the national average per capita losses (Rs. 961 or US$21, that exclude mortality impacts), and 60 percent more than the urban average (Rs. 1,037, US$22.9). Rural households in the poorest quintile bear per capita losses in excess of Rs. 1,000 (US$22)—which is 8 percent more than the average loss for households in rural areas (Rs. 930, $20.5). The total losses for the rural households in the poorest quintile is substantial (Rs. 204 billion, US$4.5 billion) as compared to their counterparts in urban areas (Rs. 16 billion, US$0.35 billion).”[1]

Cleanliness is important to protect millions of people from health hazard and give them a life with dignity. SBA’s objective of declaring India as Open Defecation Free (ODF) is also laudable. But, the understanding of elites about SBA requires critical engagement. Upper class understanding of cleanliness is ‘mechanical’ and devoid of Indian social reality. They think that open defection is only due to the lack of toilets. So, construction of Individual Household Latrines (IHHL) or Community Toilet would solve the problem. Solid Liquid Waste Management (SLWM) successfully brings in private players for collection, treatment and disposal. Their knowledge is inspired by their faith in ‘technocracy’.

Upper middle class, dominated by Hindu Upper Caste (HUC), forget to comprehend, what constitutes improved sanitation, and how caste question is associated with cleanliness and hygiene debate. The United Nations-World Health Organization Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation defines ‘improved’ sanitation as: the means that hygienically separate human excreta from human contact and hence reduces health risks to humans. Inadequate sanitation is thus the lack of improved facilities (toilets, conveyance, and treatment systems), and hygienic practices (for example, hand washing, proper water handling, personal hygiene, and so on). It exposes people to human excreta and thus to disease-causing fecal-oral pathogens through different transmission pathways. As mentioned earlier, the focus is more on constructing toilets without thinking about sanitary disposal of liquid waste. So, even if there are sufficient toilets with insanitary disposal, the hygiene and health problems will continue to persist.

At this stage, caste linkage with sanitation becomes an important issue. An attribute of caste system is division of society between purity-pollution. The lower castes/Dalits who have been involved in menial jobs also take care of human excreta, impure occupation. Caste system forces shit cleaning on Dalits and no other caste physically ventures in this job. However, superficial understanding of elites tends to glorify manual scavenging as ‘experiencing spirituality’. To clean-up those open sewerages, we need Dalits, in the rural and urban areas. The only change that would be happening under SBA is of shifting of shit from houses into the neighboring ‘nala’.

Secondly, the government, to do away with this national shame of open defecation, is also employing ‘hurried’ measures, supported by middle class enthusiasts. The projects such as ‘naming and shaming’, ‘blowing whistle’, ‘no toilet-no election’, ‘forced to share toilets with others’, etc. started by the government have class characteristic. The methods are exclusionary in the name of achieving common goods. None of the above-mentioned method is going to impact the economically mobile upper/middle class. In fact, it strengthens their position in the society, both psychologically and materially. On the other hand, selling of goats and other assets to construct toilets by poverty-stricken families will push them further into a vicious circle of poverty. These steps are celebrated in public sphere and have been used for SBA propaganda. But, no one thinks of loss of asset of those families which are forced to build toilets beyond their economic means. In 2013, during our field visit to the district Sehore, Madhya Pradesh, it was found that a family was in debt due to toilet construction, as they had invested Rs. 18,000 during the period of Total Sanitation Campaign/Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. The family still hasn’t got any reimbursement.

Meanwhile, there has been a campaign for adopting Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) method widely. The basic idea is to motivate villagers to take up WASH issues sans monetary help from government. The method of motivation without monetary help is not even approved by the World Bank and, if employed, it may result in disaster. The whole idea of focus on behavioral change without monetary help is driven by philosophy of ‘ownership’. The bureaucracy as well as the upper class is convinced that, once ‘motivated’, people will start investing in constructing the toilet and own it as their own, which is not reflected in case of subsidized toilets. According to them, fund is not an issue. “If they (poor) can afford mobile, why can’t they have toilet”, is summary of their argument.

Now, the comparison of the two objects, owning a mobile phone and having the capacity to build a toilet is somewhat misplaced. The success of mobile is conditioned by a number of factors, such as initial subsidies to the industries, duty differential on various parts of mobiles, earning through allocation of spectrum, cheap and controlled labor, and recurring ‘profit’ to the industries. However, there is no such profit in toilet making, unless they get into SLWM business and Operation and Maintenance (O&M) of public toilet which will fetch them money from users. Thus, industries are routing part of their contribution through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the SBA and leaving scheme in crunch of fund.

Also, India Inc. has its own priority under CSR such as education, health, panchayati raj, leadership of women, skilled education and water and sanitation. The money goes, if it does, to cater the wide range of priorities set by the industries and not specific to the SBA. Company Act 2013 provisioned the use of two percentage of profit of a company as part of CSR. Although, there has been higher allocation of funds as compared to 2013-14, which was made by a company under CSR but it was still too less. In 2014-15, India Inc. spent Rs. 4,600 crores for CSR in various fields such as education, health, skill India etc. Recently, the government proposal to fix 30 percent of CSR for SBA was not implemented. On the other hand, government’s own budgetary allocation for water and sanitation has been dwindling. In 2014-15, the expenditure was Rs. 12,091 crore, which was Rs. 12,969 crore in 2012-13. In 2013-14, the allocation was Rs. 11,935 crore. The elite want India to become clean but without much financial contribution. That’s the irony of Indian elite vis-à-vis sanitation. This mechanical approach reeks of pretentiousness of self-congratulating ignorant elite.

The government’s political will to declare India ODF is well-intentioned but this hurried approach may defeat the purpose. India certainly needs behavioral change but expecting it within the present government’s tenure is too ambitious. It has boiled down to the mere construction of toilets lying unused in most cases just to showcase the government achievement. We have an example of Singapore, which took 50 years to become what it is today. Hence, India needs patience and money and above all that a very sound understanding of caste in India to solve its sanitation challenges.   

[1]The Economic Impacts of Inadequate Sanitation in India, WSP, ADB & UKaid, 2006

The Author is Assistant Professor at Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow, UP

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