Caste Is The Dirty Secret Behind Open Defecation

(Liberation looks at the problem of open defecation and the nature of the Swacch Bharat campaign.)

The Swacch Bharat (Clean India) campaign is officially aimed at eradicating open defecation in India, which poses a serious public health problem and is responsible for high rates of child stunting and child death.

All over India, this campaign is adopting tactics of coercion and public humiliation, and appeals to concerns for women’s modesty and restricted mobility to promote toilet use.
The tactics of public shaming being used include moral policing by vigilante groups set up by the district administration. These vigilantes use whistling or clapping, naming and shaming, as tactics to publicly humiliate open defecators. Groups of women follow men and groups of men follow women when they are on their way to the fields – they grab the lotas (mugs of water) and shout slogans. Rations of those failing to construct a latrine are stopped. Madhya Pradesh enacted a law barring those not having a flush toilet in their homes from contesting in Panchayat elections. Recently, the CPI(ML) and AIPWA protested such public shaming tactics in several Bihar districts.

The Swacch Bharat advertisements featuring famous film stars also use shaming tactics. Advertisements featuring Amitabh Bacchan show project toilets as a symbol of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’, and show children shaming elders for defecating in the open.

Public Shaming Is A Casteist Tactic

These public shaming tactics are drawn from the repertoire of casteist and patriarchal violence. Stripping and parading, forcing people to clean or eat faeces, blackening faces, and various other forms of public shaming are used regularly in anti-Dalit atrocities, and also to shame non-Dalit parents of a woman who has married a Dalit man.

The questions we need to ask are: what role does caste play in the persistence of open defecation in India? Why is the Swacch Bharat campaign silent on caste? If casteism is responsible in the first place for the problem of open defecation, how can casteist tactics of shaming address this problem?

Why Do Indians Prefer Open Defecation?

A recent Sanitation Quality Use Access and Trends (or SQUAT) survey of over 3,200 households across 13 districts in five states of North India explored what social attitudes support open defecation in India. In an article titled ‘Understanding open defecation in rural India: Untouchability, pollution, and latrine pits,’ the researchers Diane Coffey, Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Dean Spears, Nikhil Srivastav, and Sangita Vyas analyse the survey findings.

The SQUAT survey found that while poverty and resulting lack of land or money for constructing toilets, as well as lack of water for maintenance of toilets are no doubt factors, they are still not the main factors responsible for open defecation in India. They observe that 70% of rural households do not have a toilet or latrine, while “in rural sub-Saharan Africa, where people are, on average, poorer, less educated, and less likely to have access to an improved water source than people in rural India, only about 35% of people defecate in the open without a toilet or latrine. In rural Bangladesh, only 5% of people defecate in the open.”

The survey found that the Swacch Bharat Mission subsidizes small-pit latrines at Rs. 12,000, whereas the Bangladesh Government provides small pit latrines that cost just Rs 3000. Even so, Indians across social sections do not prefer to use the Government-subsidized small-pit latrines, even if these are constructed. The reason is that these latrines require periodic manual pit emptying – a practice associated with manual scavenging and consequently considered degrading and polluting. Non-Dalits will not empty the pits, and Dalits no longer want to be employed to do such labour. If affordable twin pit latrines are constructed, one can be allowed to decompose into compost while the other is in use – emptying decomposed waste is not manual scavenging. But it still carries the social stigma associated with degrading labour, and is thus shunned. Rural Indians use latrines only if they have the means to construct much more expensive large pits privately – pits that can be emptied by machine or never emptied. In the absence of such expensive latrines, people much prefer open defecation – even considering it to be healthier and more dignified.

The SQUAT researchers found that it is inadequate to address social attitudes that support the “revealed preference for open defecation.” Instead they stressed the need to recognize the actual problem: “revealed preference for open defecation, when the alternative is a subjectively small latrine pit, entangled in the norms of purity and pollution and the scars of caste and untouchability.”

The survey found that even Dalits have contempt for the affordable small-pit latrines. A Dalit woman for whom a toilet had been constructed by the panchayat, said that she would not use the ‘small pit,’ and that an acceptable big toilet would cost Rs 21000 or more. “What she received instead was a physical reminder of the inferior position historically assigned to dalits, especially in matters of sanitation. The expense required to make a latrine with a large pit, together with the social acceptability of open defecation, imply that it makes little sense for poor people to construct and use latrines.”

Comparative studies of Hindus and Muslims also confirm that caste attitudes affect latrine use. The researchers observe, “India’s 2005 NFHS finds that rural Muslim households are 19 percentage points less likely to defecate in the open than rural Hindu households, despite the fact that they are poorer on average (Geruso and Spears, 2015). Rural Muslims are not only more likely than rural Hindus to own latrines, they are also more likely to own affordable latrines. Only 4% of rural Hindu households used inexpensive pit latrines, compared to 15% of rural Muslim households.” Clearly, over and above poverty, caste-attitudes of purity and pollution, stronger among Hindus, deter latrine use and lead to higher incidence of open defecation.

Myth Of Women’s Preference For Toilet Use

Swacch Bharat propaganda often claim that women defecate in the open only in the absence of other options, that toilets are needed to safeguard women’s modesty, and that lack of toilets make women vulnerable to sexual assault. Campaigns focus on asking women to demand a toilet from the prospective husband as a precondition for getting married.

An advertisement features Vidya Balan telling a mother-in-law that if her home does not have a toilet, she might as well take the veil off her daughter-in-law. Government campaigns regularly use slogans such as “Daughters-in-law, daughters should not go far, construct a toilet in your house” or “Mother, your veil is your companion in your home, so why do you defecate in the open?” The findings of the SQUAT survey suggest that not only are these assumptions false, but “they distract policy makers from the real social divisions, based on caste, that prevent the adoption of affordable latrines.”

To quote, “Of 1,046 women interviewed by the SQUAT survey, 4.3% told us that while going to defecate, they had been the victim of someone attempting to molest them. Of the same group, 7.6% reported that this had happened to them while going to the market. …The point is that it is not a serious policy response to these facts to suggest that women should stop going to markets. Ending sexual violence, ending open defecation, and ensuring social access to markets for everyone are all important goals, but they will not be resolved by the same public policy or program.”

If women had more decision-making power, would they choose to build toilets? Not really, because “Although it is true that latrines may benefit women more than men because they are expected to clean up the feces of ailing relatives and small children, women reject affordable latrines for the same reasons that men do: they, too, are concerned about ritual pollution and pit-emptying.”

Moreover, the idea that women want toilets so that they will “not have to go out of the house” is plain ridiculous; in fact, women prefer open defecation because it gives them a legitimate pretext to go out in the open. “A young daughter-in-law in Haryana, whose household owns a latrine, explained that: The reason that [I and my sisters-in-law] go outside [to defecate] is that we get to wander a bit…you know, we live cooped up inside.”

Restrictions on women’s mobility are not only a leading form of discrimination and violence against women; they also contribute to poor health of women and children. Moreover, as the researchers conclude, messages reinforcing patriarchal gender norms “give villagers the impression that latrine use is for women, but the message that the government should be sending is that latrine use is for everyone. Men’s feces as well as women’s feces spread germs that make other people sick.”

Fight Caste To Fight Open Defecation

We have seen how caste – and caste-based notions of ‘Swacch’ (pure) and ‘Aswacch’ (impure) are the key to the wide prevalence and persistence of open defecation in India. That being the case, government-sponsored ‘Swacch Bharat’ campaigns associating ‘purity’ with ‘progress’ and shaming people for lack of purity, can only compound the problem.

Non-Dalits shamed for open defecation and lack of toilets will only see a solution in coercing Dalits to clean pit latrines. And shaming of Dalits and oppressed castes for open defecation only adds to their experience of casteist shaming and discrimination.

Governments must of course ensure land, clean water and sewage systems, and toilets to the rural poor. But these alone will not end open defecation. We need to ask why we never see Government-funded campaigns fighting casteist and misogynist attitudes. When will we see film stars in government advertisements telling us that untouchability and manual scavenging are shameful, that inter-caste and inter-faith marriages are modern and progressive? When will we see the Government running campaigns to publicise and enforce the Manual Scavenging Act? When will we see panchayat representatives, MLAs, MPs, set an example and lead from above by using twin-pit latrines and cleaning out their own latrines? As the SQUAT researchers conclude, “Both Ambedkar and Gandhi advocated that upper caste people do their own dirty work as a step towards dismantling the caste system; rural sanitation policy would do well to spread their message.” 