Indian toilet campaign battles graft

October 9, 2012

If India’s laws had been enforced, Parmeshwari would have lost her job years ago. The fact that she still plies her traditional trade in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is not a triumph for labor rights but a danger to human health and evidence of brazen corruption on the part of local officials.

Parmeshwari, a 60-year-old widow, is a so-called manual scavenger, one of hundreds of thousands of Indians whose low-caste profession for generations has been to clean out villagers’ primitive toilets by hand and brush, collect the fecal matter in baskets and handcarts and dump it away from the houses.

In theory, the profession ought to lie in India’s poverty-stricken past. A 1993 law banned manual scavenging, and since then hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on sanitation projects in Uttar Pradesh, whose population of more than 200 million makes it larger than Brazil.

Yet in dozens of crowded homes in Budaun’s largely Muslim suburb of Navada, residents defecate on the cement floor of a fly-infested cubicle usually separated only by a curtain from the rest of the house. In exchange for a few rupees and food, Parmeshwari and fellow members of the Hindu Balmiki caste pass by each day to lift the metal flaps that give access to the stinking privies from the street outside, scoop up the waste and take it away.

“We ourselves have no toilets at all,” said Parmeshwari — one of more than 600 million Indians who lack even primitive toilet facilities and therefore practice what is known as open defecation.

But now, it seems, the Indian establishment is beginning to realize the awful price in deaths and disease that the country and its 1.2 billion people have paid for failing to build modern toilets and sewage systems.

“India’s sanitation challenge, especially in rural India, remains humongous,” Jairam Ramesh, minister of rural development, said in September at an event to publicize the central government’s latest hygiene drive.

About 400,000 to 500,000 children younger than 5 die each year in India from diarrhea “largely caused by unhygienic practices including improper disposal of human excreta,” Ramesh said. “Cleanliness is more important than godliness in this country.”

Ramesh said the sanitation budget had been nearly doubled to $675 million for the current financial year. The government has also drafted another law to abolish the job of manual scavenger, this time with the threat of one-year jail terms for anyone who employs one. The country’s Supreme Court last week also ordered that all schools should be provided with basic toilet facilities within six months.

India, though, has grown wearily accustomed to the rhetoric of cleanliness without seeing much in the way of new toilets, with Uttar Pradesh being an egregious example of how states fail to deliver on official promises.

For the 10 years up to 2011, the Uttar Pradesh government dutifully reported steadily rising access to latrines in rural areas with the help of $600 million in public funds under the Total Sanitation Campaign. Coverage officially increased from 19.23 percent of households in 2001 to 82.47 percent a decade later. With Budaun having been in the past an epicenter for polio (India reported its last case of polio nearly two years ago), this looked like good news.

But the reality was very different: The 2011 national census showed 21.8 percent of households had toilets — hardly any improvement at all. Over-reporting of success was rampant across India, but in Uttar Pradesh it was extreme.

“Corruption is institutionalized,” said one frustrated aid worker in the state. “The moment they pass over the money, they count the job as done. So another 10-year program has been lost. . . . We found sanitation conditions are quite appalling.”

It is not difficult to find evidence of corruption in Uttar Pradesh. Villagers entitled to food handouts, whether Muslims or low-caste Hindus, routinely complain that local officials sequester their ration cards for their own benefit and resell the food on the open market.

Shivpal Singh Yadav, the state’s public works minister, was caught on camera in August telling local bureaucrats that it was all right to “steal a little” as long as they didn’t “behave like dacoits,” or bandits. Uttar Pradesh state officials did not return calls when asked for comment on the missing toilet funds.

In at least one part of Uttar Pradesh, however, there are signs of progress. Less than two years ago, most homes in the farming village of Urulia, near Budaun, had unhygienic “dry” toilets serviced by manual scavengers. Today all have toilets that are flushed with water and connected to underground septic tanks or “leach pits”.

“Now diarrhea is reduced, cholera is [under] control, and there are fewer flies,” said Zakir Ali, an unemployed householder and member of the village’s health and sanitation committee. “Before we had to depend on someone [to clean], and if they did not turn up for three days there would be a lot of maintenance.”

Although 20 families of manual scavengers have lost their livelihoods and moved to town to find more conventional sweeping jobs, others approve the new toilets.

“We’re very happy, too,” said one of Ali’s neighbors. “Before, there were too many flies — and bad smells.”

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