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Swachh Bharat Mission: An exploration of vulnerability

Vulnerability as a concept is contextual and dynamic. While the roots of vulnerability are varied and shaped by various intersectional identities that could be racial, gendered, cultural, social or political by nature, poverty, in itself a vulnerability, intensifies risk. For example, women across the strata are vulnerable on account of their gender, however affluent women are less vulnerable than their poorer counterparts since their class allows them to enjoy certain social and practical measures that poor women simply cannot access.

We were interested to see how the Swachh Bharat Mission (‘SBM’), India’s latest sanitation programme, has reduced health and sanitation vulnerabilities among the poor, through access to toilets. Even in the case of sanitation, a connection between poverty and exposure to risk has been established. The urban poor are the most vulnerable due to the lack of proper sanitation facilities: a study of the World Bank revealed that 20% of the poorest in urban areas have the highest per capita economic impacts due to inadequate sanitation. Within this context, this blog aims at understanding how the SBM tackles the issues of vulnerability.  

The identification of the vulnerable for this scheme, in this case those who do not have access to sanitary toilet facilities, has been based on the 2011 Census updated by the Urban Local Bodies (‘ULB’) through their respective surveys. The SBM guidelines specify that access to this scheme must be kept simple with the only criteria required for availing a household toilet is the lack of one. Our investigation into the implementation of the household toilets component of the SBM scheme led us to believe that the Centre could have done a lot more to facilitate access to the scheme. An updated national survey could have aided in proper identification of those in need of toilets and perhaps mitigated the phenomenon of Ranchi being declared open defecation free whereas there are still people without toilets.

Some people missed out on the scheme because the announcement of the scheme and filing of applications were made during a single visit. Since many are daily wage labourers and depend on daily income to subsist, there should have been thorough outreach that accounted for absences due to work timings. Not everyone has the luxury to skip a day of work even if they are in dire need of the scheme’s benefits.

But it was the manner of the outreach that felt exploitative of the vulnerability of the urban poor in Ranchi. There were no considerations for the decision-making ability of the poor: the message was less about the health hazards of sanitation and more focused on the rather condescending point that they must make full use of the opportunity to receive free money from the government. Since the announcement and application for the scheme were done almost simultaneously for the most part, there was little time for people to deliberate and actively make the choice to avail of this scheme. The members of the monitoring team for this scheme also informed us that they were actively discouraging beneficiaries from deviating from the standard pit latrine design assigned, regardless of family sizes and preferences, since it would involve larger amounts of money and stall construction time. While these must understandably be motivated by issues of funding and time, the focus seemed clearly on construction and completion of toilets with little attempt to inform the beneficiaries about the need for toilets or encourage them to meet specific needs. Beggars can’t be choosers seemed to be the uncomfortable takeaway.

The monitoring process followed in Ranchi is nothing short of exploiting vulnerability. Many slums exist on contentious grounds, therefore there is a widespread fear of eviction, and by extension the police, among most slum dwellers. This fear was leveraged by those monitoring the project to push the beneficiaries to complete the construction of their toilets: the police would be sent to threaten people with evictions and incarceration if the work was not proceeding as planned. Before resorting to this measure, the project monitoring team would issue notices from their own office to the communities for non-completion of work followed by one stamped by the Ranchi Municipal Corporation (‘RMC’). These were, essentially, scare tactics and did not amount to anything legally. However, since the beneficiaries are not familiar with the legal landscape nor able to lean on a lawyer’s expertise, these can be effective measures to goad them into action. The project monitor team member asserted that these people could only be motivated by fear as he showed us photographs of community meetings where the police (in plain clothes) were present.

If the cultural and technical issues are not adequately tackled, then construction of toilets will not automatically result in better sanitation. Using such scare tactics to obtain quick results only serves to prove that the vulnerable are seen as an inconvenience component towards the end rather than themselves being the receptacle of empowerment.

Perhaps the worst abuse of vulnerability has been the public shaming methods used to discourage the practice of open defecation. Sanitation committees, usually comprising of a school teacher/headmaster, anganwadi staff, community leader and some members of the RMC were formed to oversee the use of toilet and to prevent the continuance of open defecation. This committee and RMC teams would visit prevalent open defecation areas early in the mornings to catch defecators. The offence would be punished in different ways -- their clothes were often snatched away and their pictures would be taken, often to feature on a hoarding for all to see. Some would be returned their lungis after paying a fine or others after they took an oath never to repeat their transgression. This tactic of humiliation rather than education is especially unfair considering that many people have not yet been provided with toilet facilities despite applying for the scheme.

While the rationale behind such extreme behavior has been laid on the ground of wishing to embarrass people who continue with the practice of open defecation to start using their toilets, we noticed that people were already self-conscious about this topic. During our visits to the communities, we would broach a range of issues and facilities. We found that people were usually vocal about everything else: sewerage and individual toilets but would never mention open defecation. Take the example of a slum dweller who had to stop the construction of her toilet due to financial and permission issues. When we asked her how she managed without a toilet, she explained that she and her family made use of the public toilet nearby. It took some probing before she admitted that open defecation does happen: the men use a large open space outside their slum during all hours, whereas the women resort to using more secluded areas at night since they cannot go all the way to the public toilet at that time. These were cases of the communities hiding their vulnerability, whether it came to admitting that the existing toilet was insufficient for the family size/timings or that there were no facilities in the first place. In this manner, they unwittingly perpetuated their vulnerability since there was no way to spot or rectify it. Our interactions with these women made it clear that these people did not open defecate solely out of preference but practical constraints.

Perhaps the final advantage taken of the vulnerability of the urban poor are the claims of open defecation free cities. Ranchi can afford to make a big splash of its achievement and contribute to the live updates on numbers of toilets built on the official SBM page since the poor are invisible and do not have a voice. The SBM fails to minimise the vulnerabilities of the urban poor. Instead, at the cost of denying those in need, it seems to exploit their vulnerabilities to gain publicity and political support.


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