On 2 October 2014, just a few months into his job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission—the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history. Since the launch, Modi has put enormous effort into making the Swachh Bharat Mission a flagship programme of his rule. He spoke of it in his annual Independence Day speeches, televised live from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, and at campaign rallies in election-bound states. The currency notes introduced after demonetisation bear the Swachh Bharat logo—Gandhi’s signature round glasses. It was a move indicative of the government’s incredible zeal for drawing attention to the campaign.
In the cover story of the May 2017 issue of The Caravan, Sagar examined the implementation of the flagship initiative, concluding that it is likely headed for failure. In particular, Sagar noted how the prevalence of the oppressive caste hierarchies in India is affecting the mission’s implementation, and reported on its failure to address caste. In the following excerpt from the story, Sagar describes his visits to two villages on the outskirts of Varanasi—Nageypur and Jayapur, both of which were “adopted” by Modi under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana—a rural development project that he had launched in October 2014. Sagar discusses the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin—the mission’s rural component—in these villages, and across India in general. The statistics on the construction of latrines, Sagar writes, “mask numerous vital issues facing the campaign—including, as I saw in Nageypur, the social exclusion of marginalised groups, and the lack of behavioural change.”
It took 40 minutes by bus from Varanasi’s main railway station to cover the 25 kilometres or so due west to Nageypur. The village, which falls within the district of Varanasi, is small and agrarian. When I visited, in early February, the villagers I spoke to put its population at a few thousand at most, and were quick to break this down by caste. They said Rajbhars make up about half the village, and Patels and Mauryas—both, like the Rajbhars, categorised under the Other Backward Classes—perhaps another quarter. The rest of the village, they said, is Dalit.
Each community lived in an enclave of its own, making the village an archipelago of clustered homes amid a sea of green fields. As I roamed, the villagers identified each cluster: the Rajbhar basti, the Patel basti, the Maurya basti. The Dalit enclave stood some distance apart from all of the rest. The OBC villagers called it the Harijan basti. (“Harijan” was Gandhi’s preferred term for those at the bottom of the caste ladder, and he translated it as “children of god.” Most people from the oppressed castes find the term condescending.)
In the OBC enclaves, I spotted latrines outside almost every house, many of them clearly new. It was common to see more than one latrine for a single house. In the Maurya basti, I found five latrines lined up along a 20-foot stretch. Some local men told me that the nearby house was home to five brothers, all of them married, and each one had gotten a subsidised latrine. This was in violation of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin guidelines, which allow for only one subsidised toilet for each household.
The Dalit enclave, meanwhile, had barely any latrines at all. The villagers here told me that only 26 of the 150 houses in the enclave had had toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Four or five of these were the houses that sat closest to the village road, creating a misleading facade. A resident named Dharmadevi told me that she had already gone five times to the village’s sarpanch, a Rajbhar man, asking for assistance to build a latrine, but had been turned away every time.
I saw only one public latrine in Nageypur, situated a short walk from the Dalit enclave. I looked into its stalls, and found them dirty. There was no water in the taps.
Close by, separated from the latrine by a low brick wall, was a statue of the anti-caste icon Bhimrao Ambedkar. Three metal benches had been installed nearby. Branded into the backrest of each one was one of Modi’s favourite slogans, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” (Together with everyone, development for everyone). The prime minister’s name appeared prominently underneath.
As of the 2011 census, 73 percent of Varanasi district’s rural households did not have latrines, and 71 percent practised open defecation. Only 1.8 percent of rural households had access to public latrines. No villages in Varanasi district have been declared free of open defecation.
Most of the latrines I saw in the OBC enclaves were kept locked up. The people who owned them had some strange reasons to explain this. One villager told me that latrines left him itchy, so he avoided them. One man in the Patel basti told me that the corrugated-sheet walls of his latrine made it too hot to sit inside, even in the middle of winter. Several villagers told me that there were similar complaints against the latrines built here under an early phase of construction under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and that those who started building later had instead gotten brick-and-cement cabins, which are more expensive.
There were more serious complaints too. I did not see a single latrine in Nageypur with a piped water connection. Several of the villagers I spoke to said that their latrines, since they had no water for flushing, had become filthy and begun to stink.
The guidelines of the Swachh Bharat Mission allow the construction of several types of latrine. There are those that connect to sewage lines, but sewage lines are not available in rural areas. There are also those connected to a septic tank, but these are also expensive. Besides these, there are twin-pit latrines, in which excreta is channelled into one of two pits that are alternately sealed when full, at a frequency of several years. The excreta in the sealed pit is allowed to digest in situ, leaving behind a harmless residue that can then be manually removed. Other options include more advanced “bio-digester” and “bio-tank” latrines, which use bacteria to digest excreta and leave no residue behind.
Twin-pit latrines are the cheapest of these. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban guidelines estimate that each of these costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 to build. All the others are estimated to cost upwards of Rs 20,000 each. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin allows a Rs 12,000 subsidy for every household building a latrine. The economics of all of this make twin-pit latrines the default choice for most households.
The ministry of drinking water and sanitation does not publish a type-wise breakdown of the new latrines built under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. However, I did not see a single bio-digester or bio-tank latrine in Nageypur, or in any other place I visited.
As common as open defecation is in India’s cities, the real front line in the battle against it runs through the country’s villages. According to UN estimates, around two-thirds of people in rural India defecate in the open, compared to around an eighth of those in urban areas. The Swachh Bharat Mission has allocated resources accordingly, and the projected spending on its rural component is Rs 1.34 lakh crore, 60 percent of the campaign’s total projected outlay. (The World Bank, using a fixed conversion rate of Rs 60 per dollar for its calculations, equates this sum to $22 billion). It aims to build 68 million household latrines. The website of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin stated in late April that 39 million of these had already been built—57 percent of the total target. The ministry of drinking water and sanitation has reported to the Lok Sabha that the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin has consistently exceeded its annual targets for household-latrine construction since it began, and that the rate of their construction is constantly rising. According to the ministry’s numbers, an average of over 34,500 household latrines were built every day in the 2015–2016 financial year, and that figure climbed to over 47,000 in the next one.
The swelling number of latrines is the only metric on which the Swachh Bharat Mission can claim a major success so far. The statistics on the construction boom, however, mask numerous vital issues facing the campaign—including, as I saw in Nageypur, the social exclusion of marginalised groups, and the lack of behavioural change.
Sangita Vyas, a research director with the non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, has closely studied sanitation-related behaviour in rural India. Vyas, alongside several of her colleagues from the institute, is a co-author of ‘Understanding Open Defecation in Rural India: Untouchability, Pollution and Latrine Pits,’ a paper published earlier this year following a survey of 3,200 households across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu over several years. The paper states that “widespread open defecation in rural India is not attributable to relative material or educational deprivation, but rather to beliefs, values, and norms about purity, pollution, caste and untouchability that cause people to reject affordable latrines.”
A 2014 report by the institute, based on a survey of “sanitation quality, use, access and trends,” found that “over 40% of households with a working latrine have at least one member who defecates in the open,” and that many respondents believed there are benefits to defecating in the open. The report emphasised that latrine construction alone is not enough to change open-defecation patterns, and that “If the government were to build a latrine for every rural household without one, without changing sanitation preferences, most people in our sample states where it is most common would still defecate in the open.”
Over the phone, Vyas reiterated that no sanitation campaign in India can be successful unless it addresses untouchability. Manoj Kumar Jha, the professor at the University of Delhi, told me much the same thing over email. “Any mission which wishes to make impact in terms of cleanliness and sanitation has to have serious engagement with the idea of pollution and purity, which is the hallmark of the Hindu caste structure,” he said. “It requires a huge political will to come out of the Brahminical mindset.”
On its website, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation has published dozens of documents for training and education, including material specifically intended for the Swachh Bharat Mission. None of these mention caste or manual scavenging.
Even setting this aside, the government’s rosy numbers on latrine construction must be seen as inherently suspect. In December 2015, the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, conducted a survey of the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. The survey looked at 7,500 households across 10 districts in five states—Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar—and compared its findings to the government’s data on them. Roughly a third of the households that the government data claimed had latrines did not actually have them. In numerous cases, the name of a single beneficiary seemed to have been duplicated to produce additional entries in the government’s “achievement list.” A quarter of the new latrines in these areas had been built with no government assistance.
Yamini Aiyar, a senior fellow at the think tank, told me that “we know from our own survey that there are gaps” in the government data. The survey teams, she said, “sometimes could not find habitations” listed in the official records. She added that local administrations have lately been under a lot of pressure to fulfil stipulated targets for latrine construction. The survey had not looked at the campaign’s finances, but, Aiyar cautioned, it is general practice for the government to pass all money released for a welfare programme off as expenditure even if much of it is not really being spent.
As of late April, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation listed 132 districts—around a fifth of all those in the country—as having eradicated open defecation. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin guidelines promise independent annual verification of such claims, but none has been conducted yet. The ministry has also reported that 3,226 public latrines were built between April 2015 and December 2016. There has been no independent check of how many of these are actually functional.
I made numerous phone calls to the office of Parameswaran Iyer, the secretary of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation and the national head of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. I was given an appointment with him in February, but he cancelled it at the last minute. Although I contacted his office again, I was never given another appointment.
The entrance to Jayapur is marked by a “yatri pratikshalya,” a visitors’ shelter. It has a metal roof, and six benches—one of them a duplicate of those I saw in Nageypur, down to the slogan and Modi’s name on the backrest. A billboard with Modi’s portrait graces the rear of the structure. Beyond it is a stretch of open ground that hosts the local panchayat office. When I arrived, on a Saturday afternoon, it was closed.
Beside the office, I saw two prefabricated latrine cabins made of fibre-reinforced plastic—the locals called this “fibre”—both emblazoned with the Swachh Bharat Mission logo. One stall, meant for women, had holes punched through its door. Inside, the latrine seat had been broken, as had the sink. The neighbouring stall, reserved for men, had had its door completely destroyed, and was damaged inside too.
There is no transport directly from Varanasi to Jayapur. To get here, I travelled around 20 kilometres west of the city by bus, to Rajtalab, and found a shared auto heading in the village’s direction.
It was past noon as we drove, and along the way I saw children returning home from school. All of them, both boys and girls, wore khaki uniforms. I found this curious, since khaki is not a common colour for school dress. Things are different here, I was told at the house of the Jayapur sarpanch. The sarpanch was away, but his young nephew, Abhay Singh, was happy to give me the lay of the land. Long before Modi adopted the village, he told me, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a host of other Hindutva outfits, and the group that launched Modi into politics—had established a strong presence here. (Later, I saw media reports that said the RSS had adopted the village in 2006.) The RSS has a strong penchant for khaki clothing. Singh told me that almost all the boys in the area were members of shakhas, the RSS’s local branches. Singh, who is in his twenties, had been a shakha member since childhood.
Singh told me that around two-thirds of Jayapur’s residents are Bhumihars—members of a traditionally dominant caste—or Patels. Most of the rest are Dalits—whom the non-Dalits of the village called Harijans, just as in Nageypur.
Also as in Nageypur, each community here lives clustered together. The areas closest to the village entrance were those of the Patels and Bhumihars, and their double-storied brick-and-cement houses suggested considerable affluence when compared to the smaller, shabbier buildings typical in villages such as Nageypur. All of these houses had a latrine, and several had more than one. A resident of the Patel colony showed me a latrine so clean it seemed to never have been used. He told me that he had a second latrine too, and while he used that one, he could afford to keep this one locked. Both latrines, he said, had been built under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
The existence of multiple subsidised latrines for individual households was not the only parallel I found between Jayapur and Nageypur. Here too, the arrival of latrines did not seem to have changed the behaviour of many residents.
Almost all of the latrines I saw were locked. I got a few of these opened by their owners, and found them in pristine condition. Despite none of these latrines showing any signs of use, their owners said they did use them. Several of these villagers, however, complained that their neighbours never used their latrines, and continued to defecate in the open. At one house, I noticed a latrine left unlocked. When I looked inside, I saw that it was being used as a storage space.
Another pattern from Nageypur that repeated itself here was the large gap, in terms of distance and also of quality of life, between the Dalit and non-Dalit parts of the village. To get to Jayapur’s Dalit enclave, I had to walk over a kilometre beyond the rest of the village. The village road was covered in gravel, and was waiting to be asphalted. An election for the Uttar Pradesh state assembly was looming, and the road was being resurfaced—on Modi’s orders, the labourers doing the work claimed. The roadwork stopped abruptly near the Dalit enclave. A resident of the enclave told me that the contractor had said that the order was to only build the road that far.
All the houses in the enclave were small, and many of them were built of mud. Only a handful had latrines. The main source of water here was a well.
Just outside the Dalit enclave, I found two more prefabricated latrine cabins, like those I saw beside the panchayat office. A shopkeeper with a small store nearby told me that the women of the enclave had initially used the cabin meant for them, but had not been able to clean up after relieving themselves since the cabin had no water supply. After the cabin became filthy and was abandoned, he said, someone broke its door. The men’s cabin had also become fetid, and had been locked—the shopkeeper did not know by whom.
According to the Census 2011, only around a third of India’s rural households had a piped supply of water. In urban areas, slightly over two-thirds of households did. As of 2016, the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, a campaign by the ministry of rural development, was still working to ensure that half of all rural households would have water connections by this year.
Later, I spoke with the village sarpanch, Narayan Patel. He complained about the quality of many of the toilets installed in the village. Modi, as part of his adoption of Jayapur under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, appointed Chandrakant Raghunath Patil, an MP from Gujarat, to oversee development work in the village. Patel told me that Patil supervised the installation of over 400 prefabricated “fibre” latrines, which minimise labour as they only require the construction of pits. Patel had not approved this, he said, because these latrines were of poor quality.
When I called Patil to ask about the state of the latrines I saw in Jayapur, he said “Humne toh bohut badiya banakar diya tha. Ab koi jaan bujhkar tod dega toh kya karenge?” (I gave them very well-built latrines. But if someone deliberately breaks them, what can be done?) When I told him about the sarpanch’s complaints, he played them down, and asked me if I had gone to the village to see things for myself. I told him I had. At this, he told me, “Humne toh block-wala banwaya tha. Fibre ka toh diya hi nahi.” (I had built latrines from cement blocks. I never gave them ones made of fibre.) Patil said that he could not remember how many latrines he had gotten built in Jayapur, since it had been two years since the work was done.
This is an extract from our May 2017 cover story, “Down the Drain: How the Swachh Bharat Mission Is Heading For Failure,” by Sagar. Read the full story here.