Rajiv Shah: United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation Leo Heller has expressed the apprehension that, despite a 2013 law prohibiting manual scavenging, the “generations-old practice of imposing sanitary tasks onto the lower castes” (Valmikis) would continue because of “the growth in number of toilets.”
In a preliminary report Heller has prepared for submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) following his visit to India from October 27 to 10 November 10, 2017, he said, his assertion that manual scavenging will “continue to be practiced in a caste-based, discriminatory fashion” comes despite the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) mission’s “preferred technology for excreta disposal – the twin-pit latrine.”
Asserting that he himself met “a number of current manual scavengers in Uttar Pradesh from various districts (Mainpuri, Hardoi, Bareli, Firojabad)”, Heller said, “I heard from several family members, during meetings in Delhi and Lucknow, a number of relatives (husbands, brothers, and sons) that died during the hard work of emptying latrines or cleaning sewer lines, without receiving adequate compensations.”
Pointing out that manual scavenging exists in different forms in India – cleaning up open pits, septic tanks or sewer lines, with or without protective gear, in direct contact with excreta – Teller said, the Swachh Bharat mission lacks “a clear and holistic human rights-based approach”.
He added, while surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017 by the Quality Council of India claimed that “approximately 91 per cent of toilets that had been built were being used”, an independent assessment by WaterAid said, “Only 33 per cent of toilets were deemed sustainably safe (eliminating risks of contamination in the long term).”
According to the survey, said Heller, 35 per cent toilets “were safe, but would need major upgrades to remain safe in the long term, and 31 per cent were unsafe, creating immediate health hazards”, adding, “I observed several cases of abandoned or poorly maintained toilets.”
Teller noted the same thing in “Savda Chevras (Delhi), a resettlement site, where he visited “a community toilet that had no light or locks.” Then, “In villages near the Thoubal Dam in Imphal, Manipur, local authorities had only partially constructed some household toilets and while the intended beneficiaries wait for them to be finished they have no choice but to defecate in the open.”
In Uttar Pradesh, Heller found, villages and wards were being certified as “open defecation free” areas, but “I learned that in some places ‘open defecation free’ certified areas are often not de facto open defecation free.”
He added, “In a certified ‘open defecation free’ village that I visited (Chinhat ward, Naubasta Kalan, Lucknow), some elderly people reported that they continue to practice open defecation for personal preference and comfort.”
Similarly, “In Mumbai, the local authority identified 118 zones that were used for open defecation and built collective toilets within 500 meters of those areas. Yet, some residents in those zones still choose to defecate in the open due to habitual, cultural and practical reasons.”
Then, Teller said, “I visited areas where open defecation remained the only feasible option. This was particularly true in slums and in rural villages and in resettlements sites, where community toilets were often far away or inexistent.”
Thus, “In the non-notified slum Vinaykpuram (Lucknow), all dwellers defecate in the open. In my walk around the slum, I saw no functional community toilets close by and the only one dysfunctional toilet that was built two years ago.”
Rajiv Shah is a political analyst and editor of Counterview.net. The views expressed are his own.