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Is sanitation truly for all? Question of access to toilets

The issue of access is a vital one when it comes to government schemes. When the Indian Government launches a central programme such as the Swacch Bharat Mission (‘SBM’) which aims to solve the problem of sanitation countrywide, it becomes important to ensure that even the most vulnerable people have meaningful access to the scheme. Therefore, in our general investigation into the workings and implementation of the urban vertical of SBM using Ranchi as a model, we were particularly interested in discovering how inclusive and accessible it is for citizens.

At first glance, it appears as though the SBM has paid heed to the National Urban Sanitation Policy’s recognition of the fact that those living in non-notified slums lack sanitation facilities, highlighting the disparity between notified slums and non-notified slums. The SBM has sidestepped the issue of land rights and land holding by clearly stating that the benefits are delinked from tenure security issues. As a result, any person with sufficient space is eligible to apply for an individual household toilet, regardless of whether that person is from an authorised colony or non-notified slum: the legality of their stay will not interfere with their eligibility for this scheme. However, our interviews with slum dwellers in Ranchi revealed certain limitations to this condition. Conversations with women of two slums particularly gave us insights as to how it was not enough for the SBM rules to simply state that the benefits were delinked from tenure security, but requires a more proactive stance to actually ensure that those living on illegal or contentious grounds can avail this scheme.

In the first case, inhabitants of one slum had applied for household toilets but were stalled at different stages of the procedure and thus unable to complete construction of any toilets. They believed this was due to active obstruction from the behalf of the Defence with whom they have cohabitational issues regarding their land: what had started off as a civil understanding between the two has soured into a genuine fear for the slum dwellers of the Defence occupying and grabbing their land. In this way, despite being aware of and willing to avail of this scheme, the beneficiaries have no means to access it.

The other example is of women living in a slum based on an informal understanding with the landowner, which happens to be a local church. There are no official papers to sanction its legality. Part of this informal deal, they explained,  necessitated them to obtain permission from the owner for every construction or even renovation. These permissions are granted with a payment of hefty sums with no thought given to the size or income of the different households in the slum. Such arrangements hold implications to the accessibility of the scheme: despite financial support from the government, the two instalments of Rs. 6000 each is insufficient to cover the construction of private toilets as well as payments to landlords.

Take the example of one of the slum dwellers who creates and sells flower arrangements for a living. She had used up all the SBM funds and has only dug a hole thus far for the toilet. She explained how she had to stall the construction of her toilet due to some unavoidable permission and financial issues. She also explained why prolonging the process was an issue: the mason, with per day charges of Rs. 500, was expensive. She estimated that she would have to save at least an additional Rs. 10,000 to complete the toilet and all of this would have to come from her own pocket.

There exists an alternative solution in the guidelines for those who cannot build household toilets of their own due to insufficient space or money: community toilets. However, this comes with a caveat: community toilets are to be built only if there are 15 men and 20 women in the same community who do not own an individual toilet. This cap means that in areas where there are fewer individuals without access to toilets, they would be deprived of access to a community toilet. Our feedback from staff working as Project Monitoring Committee (PMC) with the Ranchi Municipal Corporation (RMC) for implementation of SBM mentioned this. In the wards that this organisation had monitored, there has not been a single case of community toilets being built. This leads to larger sanitation issues for entire communities since studies have found that it does not suffice for households to own individual toilets; children risk exposure to diseases if others in the community practice open defecation.

But before households can access funds for this scheme or be eligible for community toilets, they need to be identified and informed -- tasks left to the responsibilities of Urban Local Bodies (ULB). Access also overwhelmingly depends on the quality of the outreach. On this front, the SBM guidelines expect ULBs to carry out an initial awareness campaign and motivate potential beneficiaries to apply for the scheme. The discretion is left to the ULBs as to how this is implemented.

Our interviews with the PMC staff and the women of the slums yielded different narratives on this point. The PMC staff members assured us thorough coverage, although their description of the awareness process left people with little time to deliberate whether they were able and willing to commit themselves to this scheme. Applications for the scheme were filled out  immediately after the scheme announcement with no repeat visits since it would be difficult to catch beneficiaries a second time considering their work schedules. They would set up a camp in each slum of every ward and explain the scheme, the financial benefits as well as the requirements for the application. Since there was usually a poor turnout for these camps--a factor attributed to the fact that most are daily wage workers or housewives occupied with domestic duties--they would visit each house and fill the application right then and there. They admitted that a certain number of people were missed out entirely due to their work timings but this they believed to be an extremely nominal percentage.  

Our conversations with slum dwellers told a different story altogether. In one slum, the women informed us that the first time they heard about the scheme was when we commenced our interviews about SBM in their area. We found this surprising as two SBM beneficiaries lived in close quarters. When we returned the next day, we found that the women had discussed the scheme amongst themselves but still had failed to understand it properly. They believed that those working in government departments (there were many in that particular slum) could not avail of this scheme. When we talked to one of the beneficiaries, she explained that she happened to visit the Ward Councillor with a different agenda and was informed about this scheme. Our interviews with the slum dwellers did not reflect the thorough outreach described to us by the PMC. We were left to wonder whether only select slums were reached out to meticulously and what factors made such selections and exclusions.

One thing is certain, premature declaration of ODF definitely plays a key role in excluding certain potential beneficiaries from availing the scheme. In 2016, Jharkhand featured at the bottom of the table in the Swachh Survekshan--the government’s voluntary test to encourage and assess states’ progress for this scheme. This prompted its Chief Minister Raghubar Das to declare that the state would be open defecation free by 2018, ten months before the national deadline. Thus considering the pressure this must have put on ULBs, it’s unsurprising that many resorted to premature declarations: on October 2, 2017, Ranchi and several other ULBs were declared ODF in the presence of Jharkhand’s CM.

The Telegraph promptly brought out an article with alternative findings to dispute this claim where slum dwellers have applied without receiving any response or only the first instalment. In our limited ground research itself, we have met communities where women are unaware of this scheme, let alone waiting for the second or both instalments. The PMC staff members themselves dismissed the ODF claim as a farce/joke. They had conducted a survey in the wards they were responsible for and found that within this sample size itself there were 327 households with no toilets.

Our case study of Ranchi serves as an example to prove that when it comes to access, other than some attempts at improvement, the Indian government has failed to make the SBM scheme available to all its citizens.

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