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

25 July, 2017

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.

One of the first things that they learnt was that latrine pits are so rarely emptied manually in villages that it is difficult to estimate the price of this service. The few families they found who had ever had a honeycomb-style pit emptied reported paying a very high price compared to what they pay for other services in villages. A young Brahmin named Abhishek Sharma explained to our colleagues that his relatives had recently needed to get their pit emptied:

There is no one who will empty out a pit here. Near us, in 10, 20, 50 kilometres, there is no one who will empty out a pit. This is a problem. Our uncle’s latrine pit got filled up. It was a soak [honeycomb-style] pit. We had to bring someone from Lucknow to get it emptied out. They took five-and-a-half thousand rupees for a two-hour job. That’s why this is a big problem.

To put this price into perspective, an unskilled day labourer who works in Sitapur town could expect to earn about Rs 200 per day. He would earn even less if he were working in a village. An economist who is unaware of India’s history of untouchability would be shocked by the high cost of getting a latrine pit emptied. How could someone charge Rs 5,500 for two hours of manual labour when the wage for day labour in the same market is so much less? For this much money, one could buy two complete latrines in Bangladesh! The economist, drawing upon the familiar model of supply and demand, would expect more workers to enter the market for latrine pit emptying and compete against one another for work until the price of the job came down.

The key reason why people who empty latrine pits can charge much more than the prevailing wage for day labour is that very, very few people are willing to do this work, even for high wages. The model of supply and demand itself is not wrong, but something unique is holding back supply in this case. While visiting an NGO that works on sanitation in Bihar, Diane and Nikhil [a researcher who contributed to the fieldwork] met a field manager whose job was to convince people to adopt affordable latrines. Having talked to many villagers himself, the field manager understood that people did not want government latrines because they did not want to deal with having to empty latrine pits. He wondered if more people would adopt latrines if he were also able to offer a pit-emptying service. But he struggled to find people to provide those services. He explained, “For [people who empty latrine pits] it is like this: if you earn well, but you can’t go to a restaurant, and you can’t go to a temple, what is the use?”

Earlier, we mentioned that one important limit on the pace of social progress in rural India is that higher castes are unwilling to perform traditionally untouchable work, even as more and more Dalits reject these forms of employment. But you might still be wondering whether, faced with such high prices, at least some higher-caste latrine owners would learn to swallow their distaste and empty the latrine pit themselves? After all, as Abhishek Sharma explained, it is a job that takes only a couple of hours.

We did meet a handful of people who had emptied or claimed to be willing to empty their own latrine pits. Most were Muslim. More often than not, they whispered to us that they had emptied the pit under the cover of darkness rather than pay the exorbitant price that a scavenger would charge.

But the vast majority of people we talked with said that they could not even conceive of emptying a latrine pit themselves. Priya, a woman living in peri-urban Sitapur who belonged to a lower, but not a Dalit, caste, explained why:

We cannot empty [the latrine pit] ourselves. We call a Bhangi [a term used to refer to Dalits, often employed as a slur] even if something gets clogged in the latrine … How can we empty it ourselves? It is disgusting, so a Bhangi must come to clean it … We are Hindus, so how can we clean it? [If we do], how will we worship afterwards? If money were an issue we would take a loan for it; we would have to find some way to get it emptied. This work can only be done by people who inherit this occupation. They are Bhangis, they have been created [by God] for this work.

Dalits from other than manual scavenging castes also refuse to empty their own latrine pits. A 60-year-old Pasi (a traditionally pig-rearing Dalit caste) man who works as a nightwatchman explained:

We can’t empty it on our own. It’s their occupation, they are the ones who do it. We are not that. They are the Mehtars, so they clean, but we are Pasi, so we can’t clean … If we clean, we will [be ostracised] – nobody will smoke hookah with us – I mean that nobody will eat or drink with us if we clean [faeces] … People won’t eat with us, and they won’t drink water from our cups.

Sometimes, when we were interviewing people about latrines and pit emptying, we would explain how honeycomb-style latrine pits work. We did this because most people wrongly believe that if they are used daily, government latrine pits fill up very quickly, in a matter of two or three months. However, a 1.5-metre-cube latrine pit that is used daily will actually fill up in a matter of years, not months. This is because the water used for flushing and the water content of the faeces seeps into the ground.

Incorrect beliefs about how long it takes a pit to fill up lead people to considerably overestimate the cost of owning a latrine. They think that they would have to pay several hundreds or thousands of rupees every few months to have the pit emptied. It is no wonder, then, that the SQUAT survey documented that people think that a latrine pit should be reserved for daughters-in-law, for old people, or for “emergencies.” Pits are a depletable resource: the thinking goes that the more often they are used, the more money will have to be spent on emptying them. We suspect that correcting the false belief that pits fill up in a matter of months could be a good first step for a programme of behaviour change informed by the complaints rural Indians have about government latrines.

When Nikhil explained the use of twin pits [a system where two pits are constructed for use—when one fills up, it is covered for six months so that faeces can decompose and therefore, become safer to handle] to Abhishek Sharma, he did not challenge the ideas that the faeces would decompose, and that, biologically speaking, they would be less infectious. Nevertheless, he was firm that this new information did not change his thinking about pit emptying or his family members’ thinking. He said, “We will not be able to do it. I mean, this depends on your thinking and your himmat. People can do it, but we can’t do it.”

Several other people also referred to himmat when talking about pit emptying. We found this word choice revealing. “Himmat” typically translates to “courage,” but when our respondents used it to talk about pit emptying, they linked it to a person’s thinking or orientation towards caste and untouchability. People with himmat were those who were willing to challenge social norms and face the stigma and ostracisation that might accompany such an act.

This is an excerpt from Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears, published by HarperCollins India. The excerpt has been edited and condensed.