Coercion & Obsession with Targets Mars India’s Swachh Bharat Mission: UN

Written by Deborah Grey | Published on: November 11, 2017
Access to clean water and sanitation facilities are basic necessities for healthy living. The United Nations has therefore been monitoring the progress made by governments across the world in providing these basic facilities to people, especially in over populated and developing countries. Special Rapporteur Leo Heller visited India to assess ground realities and implementation of various clean water and sanitation related facilities from Oct 27 to Nov 10, 2017. Here is a summary of his findings.
Swachch bharat
Image: Amir Rizvi / CJP

Swachh Bharat Mission lacks holistic Human Rights Approach
According to Leo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, “Policy and programme initiatives in India’s water and sanitation sector, and the related implementation measures, lack a clear and holistic human rights-based approach. The national programmes do not incorporate the human rights to drinking water and sanitation as a whole but rather in a piecemeal manner.”

Coercion and shaming
Heller is particularly disturbed by the manner in which people are coerced into stopping open defecation. “In the interest of achieving the targets and obtaining the corresponding rewards, I have received several testimonies that people are being coerced—sometimes through public authorities—to, on the one hand, quickly construct toilets and, on the other, stop practising open defecation,” observes Heller. “For instance, individuals could have their ration cards revoked, which directly impacts on their right to food. Households with overdue energy bills, hitherto tolerated by the authorities, could have their service cut off. In others cases, individuals defecating in the open are apparently being shamed, harassed or otherwise penalized,” he explains. “In my view, these abuses require a continuous monitoring and accountability by the several tiers of government for the achievement of open defecation free and, at the same time, upholding the dignity of all persons and without violating other fundamental rights,” asserts Heller.

Incomplete or defective infrastructure
According to surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017 by the Quality Council of India, approximately 91 per cent of toilets that had been built were being used. An assessment conducted by WaterAid suggests a different scenario, highlighting that usage may be susceptible to decreasing very soon without continued efforts to make infrastructure sustainable. In the survey, “only 33 per cent of toilets were deemed sustainably safe (eliminating risks of contamination in the long term); 35 per cent were safe, but would need major upgrades to remain safe in the long term; and 31 per cent were unsafe, creating immediate health hazards”. Heller says, “Indeed, I observed several cases of abandoned or poorly maintained toilets. Toilets may also be installed with doors that do not have locks, which negatively affect users of privacy. Conversely, I observed and heard of several cases where functioning toilets exist in public places but are left locked.”

Clean Water Challenges
Heller also observes that the programs aimed at providing clean drinking water have progressed, but at a very slow pace. “The way in which Indian people currently access water services is far from meeting requirements established by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 6.1 target and indicator, namely, through the concept of ‘safely managed service’. This standard requires that water is accessible on premises, meaning that public water points are not considered as ‘safely managed service. The concept also states that water should be available when needed, which will require that water in urban and rural areas is provided continuously.”
Fecal Matter and Hazardous Chemicals in Water
In 2015, 92 per cent of India population was reported to have access to improved sources of water. When the stricter definition adopted under the SDGs is used, this proportion reduces dramatically: only 49 per cent of the rural population receive water meeting this standard. For the urban areas, 73 per cent of the population have water accessible on premises and 86 per cent have it available when needed.1 No consolidated information for drinking water quality in Indian urban areas are available in the SDG baseline report. Water contamination is a huge problem in India. According to Heller, “Safely managed service also means that water should be free from faecal contamination and hazardous levels of arsenic and fluoride. In connection with this, the relevant bodies at all levels require appropriate processes to monitor and survey drinking water quality, and to properly remove chemical and microbiological contamination.”

Need an intersectional lens to view the problem
Heller says, “Several determinants have a heightened likelihood of predicting where or why people have lower quality access to adequate water and sanitation services: disability, gender, caste, tribe, place of residence in terms of urban or rural areas, land tenure (especially in urban areas, e.g. residence in formal vs. informal settlements), among others.” The ways in which these factors can impact on one’s access are diverse but, importantly, a combination of any of these factors is likely to have a multiplying effect. “For example, disabled persons widely suffer from a lack of accessible sanitation infrastructure, but female disabled persons can suffer more, and still more from the added lack of material and social conditions to ensure menstrual hygiene management,” he elaborates.
According to a global report, only 43 per cent of India’s population has access to piped water. In rural areas, where 67.5 per cent of the country’s residents live, access to piped water is only available to 31 per cent of the population (about 270 million people out of the country’s 1.3 billion). Meanwhile, in urban areas it is available to 69 per cent of the population. A similarly stark divide separates access to water on premises in rural vs. urban areas: 49 per cent and 73 per cent, respectively in 2015. Not being available on premises, rural populations—most often women and children—are thus far more likely to spend precious time fetching water from surface water, boreholes, tube wells, or in some cases public stand posts and water tankers.