Human Development

What the Swachh Bharat Mission did not change

  • Blog Post Date 02 October, 2019
  • Perspectives
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Diane Coffey

University of Texas at Austin

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Dean Spears

University of Texas at Austin

On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and 5th anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), Coffey and Spears discuss findings from a field survey about changes in open defecation in rural north India in the last five years. While decline in open defecation accelerated under SBM the percentage of rural latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change. What also did not change is that untouchability and social inequality are important parts of why open defecation continues.

Last Wednesday, two children – one ten years old, one twelve years old – were killed in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The children were Dalits. The killers, journalists report, belong to a higher-ranking caste. The village was officially open-defecation free, according to the declarations of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).

The children were killed, reports hold, because they defecated in the open.

Like many families in rural north India, their family did not have a working latrine, according to their father. For many rural Indians, this situation has changed recently. Over the past few years, the government has reportedly built hundreds of millions of latrines. But this father tells reporters that he did not receive one from the local authorities.

Other families in rural India told different stories when our team interviewed thousands of them in 2014 and again in 2018 (Gupta et al. 2019). Sometimes, we heard from older adults, who were no longer able to go out into the fields, that they were grateful for a latrine. Other times, families were unhappy that they had been ordered by local officials to build a latrine when the Rs. 12,000 subsidy would only cover a small portion of the cost. Many times, people were indifferent – perhaps a contractor had built a latrine near their house, but they defecated in the open before, and they would defecate in the open now.

And, in an important minority of cases, people reported humiliation, anger, or fear in response to coercion and threats. “Build a latrine or lose your rations.” “Build a latrine or your children will be kicked out of school.” “Pull your ears, do sit-ups, and ask for forgiveness for defecating in the open.” Statistics show, and nobody would doubt, that Dalits and Adivasis were more likely to report these experiences with the SBM.

It is unfortunately true that higher-caste people in the rural parts of India, where open defecation is common, harmed, threatened, and killed Dalits before the SBM. So, there is an important sense in which this crime may have happened anyway. No evidence can settle whether a complex, multi-faced national programme was a cause of such a crime. Moreover, of course, many who worked for a Swacch Bharat (clean India) are dismayed by this killing.

But SBM used the social inequality of Indian villages and exploited the thin boundary between social authority and the rural State. In many places, coordinators recruited local elites to use social norms to enforce rapid change – and sometimes actively encouraged swacchgarhis (official volunteers organised under the programme) and nigrani samitis (community organisations that monitor open defecation) to humiliate and harass the poor and marginalised as they went to defecate in the early morning.

Rural north India is not open-defecation free. It was not a realistic goal for a five-year programme. What are the consequences of a popular political leader charging the country to achieve an utterly unachievable timeline?

It depends. It is easy to imagine the ends justifying the means. No doubt, accelerating the decline of open defecation in rural India is a worthy goal. Open defecation kills children (Geruso and Spears 2018), and stunts the physical and cognitive development of those who survive (Spears 2018, Spears 2012). As watchers of the SBM, we have often heard people say that an inspirational goal could motivate the country to achieve a remarkable outcome. If announcing a target and building toilets so quickly could accelerate the decline of open defecation without negative consequences, then doing so would indeed have been a good idea.

But utterly implausible targets from powerful political leaders are also known to have other effects.

One other effect is to create incentives to distort the information that the State uses to govern, and to inform the claims that it makes to its citizens. Anybody who wants to can drive an hour from Bhopal into Madhya Pradesh and find open defecation. But most observers will simply consult official statistics. These report success – in parliamentary questions last December, the government reported that Madhya Pradesh is 100% open-defecation free.

The hollowing of official statistical credibility in India has not been limited to sanitation. The government continues to insist, for example, that air pollution is not a cause of mortality. Economic experts were reportedly not consulted about demonetisation. And important economic surveys have simply stopped being collected and released.

The other foreseeable consequence of an extreme goal is to legitimise extreme methods. And in a country in which nearly a third of households admit to practicing untouchability (Thorat and Joshi 2015), it is not a surprise that when local government officials sanctioned coercion and intimidation as means of achieving Swacch Bharat, the consequences would fall most heavily on the already disadvantaged.

Our statistics show that the decline in open defecation indeed accelerated under the SBM. But, strikingly, the percentage of rural latrine owners who defecate in the open did not change in the states that we surveyed1 between 2014 and 2018. Statistically, the decline in open defecation was entirely due to changes in latrine ownership.

What also has not changed is that untouchability and social inequality are important parts of why open defecation continues. The SBM could have announced an ambitious goal to spend five years addressing these interconnected challenges together. That missed opportunity is one of the most important costs.


1. Rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

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