It was 5.40 am and the bus had just arrived at Kotagiri town in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri district. Among the passengers was a woman who asked her husband if there was a toilet she could use. Since the “Pay and Use” toilet at the bus stand opened only at 7 am, the husband tried to find a safe place in the open where she could relieve herself. She refused.

This instance, unfortunately, is nothing out of ordinary across Indian villages, towns and cities. Men, at least, have the privilege to urinate in places where they find fit. But a woman has to think twice before leaving her house and will rather drink less fluids and risk health issues than access unusable toilets. Such issues on the sanitation front remain invisible, even when they are commonly experienced.

Sanitation workers are compelled to travel to their workplaces in garbage trucks, standing next to the very garbage they clean and collect. Within India’s sanitation system, neither users nor the sanitation workers feel equal. These aspects are overlooked in discussions about sanitation, which revolve around disturbing visuals highlighted by the media, such as those of “scavengers” carrying human excreta or standing in manholes.

This is evident through several recent examples. Take, for example, the photo-ops of the Prime Minister washing the feet of sanitation workers and film stars holding brooms to promote the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. While introducing the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said, “Tourism provides employment to the poorest of the poor. But there is a big obstacle in promoting tourism and in our national character and that is the filthiness all around us” (The Indian Express, August 16, 2014).

The academic approach to scavenging results in book titles such as India Stinking (2005), Manual Scavenging in India: A Disgrace to the Country (1997), Endless Filth: The Saga of the Bhangis (2003). The government response at policy level is to wipe off the visual representation and replace it with positive imagery.

This, I argue, is the result of an approach that ignores the heart of the issue — the caste system and how it determines Indians’ view on human and other waste, where ideas of sanitation privilege purity over hygiene. In Indian society, we categorise spaces as pure and impure, and keep them separate.

“Pure” places like temples, schools and workspaces are discouraged to include toilets. In 1970, the Tamil Nadu government provided houses for sanitation workers in Krishna Puthur village of Kotagiri, equipped with one room and a small partition for the kitchen. The houses neither had toilets nor a bathroom. Women living in these houses defecate in the open even today. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is lost on the workers as well as the tourists visiting Kotagiri.

Various studies, including one by the Rice (Research Institute for Compassionate Economics) Institute, have pointed out that the problem with sanitation in India is not lack of infrastructure but the social and cultural stigma attached to it. Our discussions and policies hardly address this stigma.

The BJP government has announced its decision to amend the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act to make the use of machines mandatory in cleaning of manholes. This is a welcome move, no doubt, and one hopes it will reduce the number of deaths that take place during the manual cleaning of manholes. But why did it take so long for us to introduce the machines?

Though the water closet was first discovered in Europe in the 16th century, it became popular in India only in the 20th century. While governments in the West made the installation of water closets mandatory in public buildings, including churches, India continues to use dry latrines, and the underprivileged defecate in the open, practices rooted in our cultural understanding of human excreta.

We are the only society that not only differentiates spaces as pure and impure but also its people. There is an exclusive section of our population — specific castes — to clean human filth. The social status of this section has been permanently fixed. Government policies and the civil society discussion on sanitation are yet to focus on this cultural stigma. It’s in this backdrop that we need to view the discussion on introducing machines to clean manholes.

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