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

Manzoor Ali

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’.

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

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’.

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.

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. “
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]

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’.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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