India: Toiling for a Toilet


In Pihrid, a villager stands in front of two latrines he was ordered to construct as part of a government sanitation scheme. Each latrine cost Rs 50,000, or about $770. Image by Yardain Amron. India, 2017.

In Pihrid, a villager stands in front of two latrines he was ordered to construct as part of a government sanitation scheme. Each latrine costs Rs 50,000, or about $770. Image by Yardain Amron. India, 2017.

On June 15, 2016, just off a train ride 1,000 miles south from a brick kiln in Punjab, Ramlal Baghel, along with his three sons and their wives, arrived home to their village in rural Chhattisgarh, fatigued and disappointed. Five months of gruelling 15-hour days had netted the family just ₹26,000. The earnings would have barely been enough to sustain the family until the kilns reopened in September—let alone chip away at the growing debt.

So far it was a familiar story. Now in his 60s, tall and thin, with deep-set eyes and a peppered beard, Ramlal is one of a million-or-so Chhattisgarhis compelled by debt, local unemployment, and interest-free “advances” to migrate to notoriously exploitative kilns across India’s northern rim. But as the Baghels settled in at home for the rainy season, a notice arrived ordering each family in the village to construct a toilet as part of a national government sanitation scheme. Non-compliance would incur huge fines and suspended entitlements.

“Whatever I made at the brick kiln, it went towards making the toilet,” said Ramlal. He pointed to the small dirt courtyard at a latrine the size of a small closet. It had a fresh yellow coat of paint, corrugated tin roof, PVC door, and squat pan toilet inside. It was clean, new and deceivingly innocent-looking.

While sanitation schemes in India date back to the British Raj, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is the latest and by far most ambitious iteration. Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of 2014, the ₹9,000 crore scheme aims to achieve an Open Defecation-Free (ODF) India by constructing 12 million rural household toilets across the country before October 2, 2019—to coincide with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

But in mid-December, a visit to 28 villages in Janjgir-Champa, considered the district in Chhattisgarh with the most migrant brick labourers, revealed that SBM had become a means to a different end. Interviews with over 100 people and lower level government officials across Malkharoda block, where the Baghels and some 1,40,000 people live across 108 villages, revealed an utterly botched rollout. Systemic coercion had induced rampant debt. No one would take responsibility. This seemingly benevolent sanitation scheme meant to make women safer and prevent diseases had instead perpetuated migratory forced labour.

Opening the door to coercion

Travelling around Malkharoda, the coercion appears widespread. In every village, the administrators had threatened to revoke the families’ ration cards—their most essential entitlement—if they didn’t build toilets. In all but one village, guards were stationed on the roads at night to shame women who were out to relieve themselves; women said the guards blew whistles, knocked over the water jugs, and one man said they assaulted people. In at least one village, the poorest people were told their mud kutcha houses would be razed if they didn’t comply. And in a handful of villages, fines ranging from ₹50 to ₹1,000 were instated for anyone caught out in the bush.

In Malkharoda village, the dhaba owner said that the Janpath chief executive officer, Vinay Kumar Soni, beyond threatening to shutter her restaurant if she didn’t get the toilet built, had threatened to take photos of her relieving herself and post them on the Internet. Perhaps this was just an easy, empty threat. But the next day in Runpota village, a young man named Digeshwar Baragi said the village secretary had actually taken his photo while he was out relieving himself and circulated it among other village secretaries on WhatsApp.

“I found it very humiliating,” said Baragi, a bandana tied around his forehead. “And I told him ‘I don’t have any money, how do you expect me to get [the toilet] made?’ But he wasn’t bothered and said if I don’t get it built fast, he was going to circulate it on the Internet as well. They’ve done it among my friends too. And the girls.” Baragi had taken out a ₹20,000 loan at 3% interest, and the toilet still wasn’t finished.

These coercive tactics, beyond being outright illegal, are all degrading distortions of perhaps the biggest lesson learned from decades of rural sanitation work across the globe: simply building people toilets doesn’t mean they’ll use them. More crucial and challenging is inducing communal behavioural change. Since the 1990s, the prevailing technique that’s been used in India and much of the developing world is called Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). In short, CLTS advocates introducing the feeling of shame and disgust to a community through a series of “triggering” activities in order to induce the abandonment of open defecation.

Under SBM, the Indian government suggests (and earmarks funds so that) each panchayat train an “army of ‘foot soldiers’” under the command of a “motivator” to trigger villages into abandoning open defecation. If you only followed the government’s highly active and curated @swachhbharat Twitter account, triggering across the country looks like a pleasant affair: photos of villagers actively participating in defecation area mapping exercise; smiling women and children leading awareness marches.

And while the majority of triggering likely stays within the ethical bounds of CLTS guidelines, Malkharoda is not the first place where it hasn’t. Coercive techniques have been documented at CLTS programmes in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and in India, at least in the southern State of Karnataka, but likely in other States as well. In an online sourcebook of practical SBM campaign ideas written for administrators, a cautionary note under the sub-header “reflect on ethical issues” admits to a dozen coercive tactics and outright human rights abuses that “have occurred in some campaigns”.

Digging into debt bondage

Nonetheless, the coercion had accomplished its goal in Malkharoda. Everyone seemed to have a toilet. The entire block was officially declared ODF in mid-2016. The problem now was that beyond the ethical implications, everyone was in debt.

In Amlidih, the sarpanch gave out materials initially, but then stopped without explanation. “We were waiting,” said Balash Prasad Chandra, “expecting him to give [materials] to us as well.” Instead, he said the local panchayat held a meeting and told everyone to build the toilets themselves, and fast, or else their ration cards would be cancelled.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Chandra was in the midst of building his family a house and owed a shopkeeper for materials he had taken on credit. Now, to pay for the toilet too, he had to sell off his paddy stocks, pawn his wife’s jewellery, and take out a ₹45,000 loan at 3% interest. “I spent the entire season’s income on this toilet,” he said. “Whatever we make on this year’s harvest, I’m going to have to spend to get her jewellery back.”

Still, Chandra had it better than some. He owned some land, and worked as the local confectioner, taking sweets orders for weddings that brought in a few thousand rupees per month—an income that’s kept him away from the kilns. But the vast majority of lower caste people in Janjgir possess little to no land nor specialised skills. Most work as field hands but describe employment as a day-to-day crapshoot. Across the block, people said they had pawned or sold their wives’ jewellery, land if they had any, and taken high interest loans from wealthy landowners which would take years to pay back.

But even worse, in Bade Sipat, where about 90% of the 3,300-person village migrates out to kilns, a street vendor named Visham Kurana made it clear that the debt was perpetuating their migration. “Whatever money they had made at the kilns [this past season], they’ve spent to make this toilet,” Kurana said. “So again to run their families, they have taken loans at high interest”—₹50,000 at 5% on average—“and some have even taken money from the jamadars [middlemen] who take them to the brick kilns, so now they have to work like bonded labourers.”

Still, the price tag was confounding. For one, the government and UNICEF consider the ₹12,000 “incentive” allocated per household sufficient to construct a long-lasting toilet. (In Chhattisgarh and other States this “incentive” was in fact a ‘reimbursement’ since it was being disbursed after the entire village or block went ODF.) Gramalaya, an NGO that’s been building toilets in India for decades, claims it can build a child-friendly community bathroom—with 10 latrines, washing stations, and murals—for about ₹30,000.

For another, even though the SBM guidelines recommend individual households construct their own toilets to “promote ownership”, many sarpanches had built the toilets in their village; and when they did, each unit had cost around the quoted ₹12,000. Why were poor villagers, many already in significant debt like Ramlal, spending two to three times as much on a toilet they didn’t want in the first place?

Blame and stigma

When I put this question to a handful of lower level administrators around the block, they offered a few theories to explain the discrepancy, all of which held villagers responsible. The first—expressed by Pirda’s sarpanch and an MNREGA employment assistant officer from Nawapara-D—simply held that villagers were lying about the high construction expense.

The second theory—expressed by Shivanti Lakshmibai Johan, the sarpanch of Ghoghri, among others — held that villagers were willingly spending extra. She had constructed toilets in 80% of the village for the allotted ₹12,000 each. But there had been a minority of villagers who had spent extra to make their own toilets “bigger and better”, with tiles, painted walls, and stylised doors. Surely there were villagers who spent more to deck-out their toilets, perhaps some irresponsibly. But predominantly, the toilets constructed by villagers looked pretty much identical to those constructed by the sarpanch, at least outwardly in size and material.

In Khurgatti, the de facto sarpanch Kishur Kumar Ajay at first echoed Johan. But upon seeing a photo of a toilet that a villager had spent upwards of ₹30,000 to construct, he conceded it looked almost identical to the toilets he had constructed for ₹12,000. He pivoted to a more technical theory about pit design. In his village, he had used the government-encouraged twin-leach pit technology. Villagers constructing their own toilets were digging one single deep pit, he said, which hiked the raw material and labour cost.

According to the SBM guidelines though, “Care shall be taken to ensure that these toilets are not over-designed and over-constructed. I.e. building extra large pits which are not required, to keep them affordable…States have to ensure through effective communication that such tendencies are restricted.” Ajay shook his head upon hearing the passage. “It’s actually totally the villagers’ responsibility what kind of designs they have used. We’ve conducted enough programmes to educate them on how to keep the cost at ₹12,000.” He continued, “Their thought might be that whatever resources they have, they can just pawn for now and make a good toilet instead of re-channelling the pits again and again.”

This theory seemed plausible: for a blend of religious, cultural, and habitual reasons, villagers were already apprehensive about placing their waste so close to their homes. Requesting they also manage that waste every couple of years—by clearing the filled pit and rerouting the pipe—seemed like a steep sell. Steeper still by a government many distrusted to begin with. We did come across villagers who had opted for one single deep pit. But we also came across at least an equal number of villagers who had opted for two deep pits, usually seven to eight feet deep. The “technicalities” of waste management didn’t seem to be above the heads of villagers, as Ajay claimed.

Furthermore, this third theory rested on the premise that sufficient ‘Information, Education, and Communication Activities’ were conducted prior to construction. But beyond an initial women’s march in June, the opposite was true: the very problem seemed to be the rollout itself. In a number of villages, people said their sarpanch hadn’t provided them with any designs. In no village was a “menu” of design options provided as required by the scheme.

And in the villages where the sarpanch had thoroughly explained a design, most people said they had been sceptical it would last.

Specifically, everyone was worried about the recommended three-to-four foot pit depth. In Kurda, a group of women resting under an overhang said the sarpanch had told them to dig two pits—three feet by three feet. But when they voiced concern that such shallow pits would fill in a year or two, they were rebuffed and told to build it themselves if they didn’t like the design. Outside an auto parts shop in Devgaon, a migrant brick labourer named Mahesh said that even though his sarpanch had offered to construct a toilet for him, he had taken out a loan to build it himself with a deeper pit. When asked what he would say to someone who criticised such a decision as financially irresponsible, he said: “We thought that if we had to make a toilet and it has to last in our house for such a long time, it's better to take a loan and make it into something that lasts for 10 to 20 years than to continuously invest in it for many years to come.”

People were trying not to get stuck with a toilet they believed either would require perennial maintenance, or be permanently out-of-order within a year or two. They were thinking ahead, trying to anticipate future expenses and protect the sanctity of their homes. The high interest loans were less foolish investments than coerced, practical ones.

But why was the government hell bent on such a rapid rollout? A clue exists in a speech Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister Raman Singh gave on July 2, 2016, at a national SBM conclave in Raipur. According to a press release, he announced that Chhattisgarh will become ODF by the end of 2018—almost a year ahead of the countrywide target. To hit that early deadline, Mr. Singh said the State government would give “preference” to ODF blocks in other schemes. Similarly, Bathora’s sarpanch said Janjgir’s district collector and other administrators had promised they would get individual projects for his village if it became the first village to go ODF in the district. Yet, almost a year later, he had received no favours. Only after dozens of sarpanches protested had reimbursement funds begun to trickle out. But villagers who constructed their own toilets still hadn’t received anything.

In Kurda, a woman named Katra Bai admitted she felt safer going to the bathroom in her house, but that new debt had caused so much stress in her marriage that her husband was beating her now. “They were all over us to get it done as fast as possible and threatening us with bad consequences, and now that it’s made, where is the money?” she said. “Although it’s just [₹]12,000, it’s something, some hope.” On the ground nearby, her children were hunched over homework assignments, scribbling away. She was determined to keep them in school, but without the compensation, the kilns were looming.