The Politics of Toilet Building

On the 11th of February 2016 an article in India’s Tribute newspaper announced that, under the Swachh Bharat Mission, Chamba District would be declared open defecation-free by the end of March. Chamba is one of the twelve districts that make up the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. ‘Swachh Bharat’ is a campaign led by the National Government with the mission to create a ‘clean India’. Open defecation is the practice of ‘going’ outside, usually in fields or forests. It is a major cause of infectious diarrhoea and intestinal worm infections.

I began doing fieldwork in Chamba District in 2002 and have been returning regularly since then. As an anthropologist interested in development issues, the prevalence of open defecation was hard to ignore. Away from the towns, none of the rural households where I lived had a toilet; early each morning men, women and children would simply walk a little way from the village with a pot of water and do what they had to do.

The first tentative attempt to end the practice of open defecation in these rural villages began just over a decade ago. A local NGO with money from a Canadian funder financed the construction of thirty pit latrines for households in a remote mountain-top village. A pit – 1 meter wide and 2 deep – would be dug and the sides lined with stone; over this a concrete floor was constructed with a porcelain squat toilet set into it, stones walls provided shelter topped with a solid roof of wood and slate. These latrines were well-made and – at the equivalent of £25 each at the time – relatively expensive. When I went to visit the village a few years later it was to discover that none of these toilets were actually in use. Most had fallen into disrepair; one I found was being used as a storage space. Nevertheless the villagers spoke highly of the scheme: in a place where paid work is hard to come by they had been well rewarded for their labour.

There are two aspects to introducing household sanitation. You can give people toilets and hope that they use them – a supply-driven approach that put subsidies at the centre of the process and relegates social norms and the need for behavioural change to the background. But just because people are able to use a toilet doesn’t mean that they will want to do so. A different approach centres on educating people on the health and other benefits (privacy, status, safety, convenience) offered by latrines, and then proceed according to the needs and capabilities of the community. This is known as a demand-led approach.

Given the earlier lack of enthusiasm for using closed latrines, on returning to Chamba in September 2014 I was surprised to find that that almost every household either had a newly constructed toilet or was vigorously digging pits, concreting floors and building walls in an effort to get one. Having long been ignored the toilet had become a ‘must-have’ addition for every household. What had prompted this change in attitudes? Had they been inspired by the Swachh Bharat Mission? Did this herald a new ‘clean India’ free from open defecation? It turns out it didn’t.

What I found was the same old supply model but this time with a large stick attached. The villagers told me that they were building the latrines because if they did not the head of the village council was threatening to take away their ration cards. With nearly 80% of these households officially classified as living below the poverty line, these cards provide access to subsidised rice, wheat and oil that are vital to survival. Those people who had government jobs found that their salaries would be stopped until they provided proof of having built a latrine. These penalties were approved by the area’s Member of Parliament, though he softened them with the announcement that money would be offered to village councils that met the target of achieving 100% toilet coverage. If indeed this money is available it has not made its way to the families of the area. Instead they have been left with the considerable expense of buying materials and having to provide more than a week of labour to complete the task. This caused considerable distress and forced some families into debt.

With more than 2.5 billion people worldwide living without access to proper toilets, one of the Sustainable Development Goals commits to ensuring proper access to water and sanitation for all. As part of this commitment the year 2030 was set as the target by which open defecation should be brought to an end. At the same time it was recognized that the participation of local communities must be strengthened and supported in order to improve water and sanitation management. In India it seems that moves towards the former are being actively hampered by a lack of recognition of the latter. The official position is that the creation of several hundred new latrines is physical proof of a successful sanitation project. But this is contradicted by the continued presence of human shit around the fields, forests and footpaths in the rural villages where I do my fieldwork. The new toilets are symbols of the coercive power of the state; some would argue that maintaining old habits of open defecation thus becomes a form of resistance. If the Indian government really wants to see improvement in hygiene and sanitary health it would be cheaper and more effective simply to buy everyone a bar of soap.

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