Advantage Modi- Series-VII 10 Nov 2014
Flush our biases down the drain
Cleaning India requires dismantling the deadweight of India’s inequalities and the neglect of women and people of disadvantage castes and religions.
As one public policy priority among others, sanitation is a sterling selection. Why then am I so cautious in my optimism and enthusiasm about the prospects of seeing a cleaner India? This is because India’s shameful performance in sanitation is embedded firmly in its enormous social and economic inequalities of caste, gender, religious identity and class, and in its consistently low public investments for a better life for India’s dirt derives mostly from its huge historical inequality, and from neglect of India’s people of disadvantage in public investment.
I find instead the present official public discourse on sanitation strangely sanitized and depoliticized. India’s millennia-old caste system is founded on great social anxieties about pollution, and little is considered as ritually polluting as human excreta. Those at the lowest depths of the caste hierarchy-and even among these mostly girls and women-are assigned the most socially humiliating duty of cleaning excreta.
The result of unchanged beliefs of caste pollution from human waste is that even if schools build toilets, they will be cleaned only by children, often girls, from the lowest castes. Children from these communities in many cities have confided to me that the humiliation of being forced to clean toilets used by their classmates is a major reason why several refuse to return to school. Many tend to blame slum dwellers for their squalor as though they choose to live as they do. Because of the failure of the State to provide affordable housing to the enormous unorganized workforce, they are forced to occupy open public spaces.
The India Exclusion Report 2013 by the Centre for Equity Studies reports Census 2011 data that 63% households in recognized notified slums have either open or no drainage for waste water and 34% slum household have no latrine in the premises, and over half such households defecate in the open.
We desperately need to battle India’s dismal conditions of sanitation of children are to be nourished, and human beings are to live in habitats which are dignified, healthy and sage. But none of these problems can be solved by pious pledges by middle-class people to keep their surroundings clean. Cleanliness is often a luxury of people of relative privilege. Cleaning India requires dismantling the deadweight of India’s inequalities, and of our tolerance of social humiliation and the governmental neglect of women, people of disadvantaged castes and religions, and of working people in slums. Until that happens, we would evoke Gandhi’s name in vain by depoliticizing one of India’s most deeply political problems, perpetuated by powerlessness and neglect of India’s millions of lesser live.
As narrated by Harsh Mander HI 23 Oct 2014.