“We Are Hindus, So How Can We Clean It?”: How Caste Prejudices Promote Open Defecation in Rural India

25 July 2017
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Diane Coffey and Dean Spears are visiting researchers at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. In their book, Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, Coffey and Spears investigate why more than half the Indian population defecates in the open in India, and why, despite schemes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission­­—the central government’s flagship sanitation project—the use of latrines in rural India remains low. As part of the research for the book, the writers, along with a research team, traveled to various parts of rural Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. They found that the primary reason for poor sanitation in rural areas is the persistence of caste prejudices—most Indians, especially upper-caste Hindus, continue to associate defecation with impurity or “dirty” practices, and are often unwilling to have latrines constructed in their otherwise “pure” homes. This prejudice is a by-product of caste hierarchies, which relegate any work involving proximity to human waste to those considered lower-caste, and perpetuate practices such as manual scavenging. “Open defecation in rural India is a globally special case that helps us understand how social inequality constrains human development,” Coffey and Spears write in their introduction to the book. “It may not be possible to accelerate India’s future without engaging with the illiberal forces of caste and untouchability that are still part of India’s present.”

How these prejudices further unsanitary practices is illustrated in the excerpt below: despite recommended World Health Organisation standards for small, affordable latrine pits, most homes in rural India desist from having these installed, or build extremely large pits in the ground—thereby increasing the cost of building toilets, among other issues. The reason behind these decisions, Coffey and Spears found, is that most people refuse to participate in the process of emptying of latrine pits. In the extract, the writers discuss their findings regarding this reluctance, and explain how it is rooted in caste.

In other developing countries, where untouchability and manual scavenging never existed, emptying latrine pits is a job done by people who are poor and down on their luck. But they are not people whose parents were prevented from drawing water from a well. They are not people whose parents were forced to eat scraps after public functions. In other countries, emptying latrine pits is an unpleasant job rather than a symbol of generations of oppression and humiliation. India’s history of untouchability—and the way it is being renegotiated in villages today—is what makes the job of emptying latrine pits in Indian villages markedly different from other places in the developing world.

If higher-caste people cannot look beyond the supposedly polluting nature of sanitation work and learn to see the people who do such work as equals, it may help to accelerate social progress if more people like Neha [a young Dalit woman that the writers met] refuse to do the stigmatising work that others expect of them. This is a strategy that many Dalit activists have promoted, even as other Dalits advocate instead for better pay and working conditions—especially those like Neha’s father, who have found meagre economic security in performing untouchable work. It is against this backdrop that people in villages fret about what will happen if they were to use a simple pit latrine, and if that pit were to fill up.

By the time we had finished [the studies described in the book], our whole team had come to understand how important the lack of affordable pit latrines is to India’s open defecation crisis. But we did not yet fully understand just how difficult it would be to get a latrine pit emptied in a village. Could someone get a latrine pit emptied if he wanted to? Our colleagues returned to Sitapur [a district in Uttar Pradesh] in December 2014 to find out.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears are visiting researchers at the Economics and Planning Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi, assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin and executive directors of r.i.c.e., a research institute for compassionate economics, online at www.riceinstitute.org.

Keywords: Dalits caste Hindu Dalit Hinduism caste discrimination Swachh Bharat
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