Open Defecation: A Coda of Geospatial differentiation by British India?

Swacch Bharat? A pan India mission launched with political support at the centre is a novel effort. But to eradicate open defecation from a society whose foundation is still influenced by Manu Smriti, sanitation pipes need to be dug deep. 

Open defecation and urban sanitation has been influenced and associated with several policies, agendas and efforts, running separately for rural and urban areas in India. Yet, the human right to adequate sanitation and anyone concerned with its upkeep and cleanliness, continues to be linked with ‘dirty’. The latter idea emerges from the Laws of Manu, famously known as the ‘Manava Dharma Shastra’ of 500 BC, which identify toilets and the caste cohort ‘responsible’ for cleaning them as untouchables and thereby need to be segregated from place of habitation. Centuries of social, physical segregation and psychological segregation have been spent but the outlook remains largely unaffected. Living in a country which boasts of earliest sanitation systems, as excavated from the Indus valley civilization in 2600 BC, our country and its citizens have been knowingly or unknowingly been propagating the ideologies of British India when it comes to eradication of open defecation, until recently.  

British India introduced the modern sanitation system in India post 1857 mutiny, in conjunction with recommendations of the Royal Commission appointed in 1859 to look into the sanitary state of the army, which was plagued with the epidemic post mutiny. Sanitary reforms were launched and spatial segregation of indigenous and European population became vital. Model towns, cantonments and civil lines came up as areas boasting of modern sewerage system interwoven with network of pipelines and latrines while the indigenous population, derogated as dirty, drowned in their own waste. The guiding principle of this movement was that it is cheaper and more effective to prevent further environmental degradation than spending large amounts of public finance on poor relief. As state intervention was required for achieving its goal, these sanitary reforms soon became political and gained support of the middle class and elite. In 1848, the Public Health Act was passed. It was only in the late 1860s that public health and sanitation became effective with the passing of Sanitation Act of 1866.

This sanitary revolution and its implementation was managed by the  Provincial Sanitary Police force headed by a military medical officer, while for the indigenous section, Sanitary Boards and inspectors were delegated with the task of vaccination and other menial containment measures. At city level, need for sanitary society was emphasized and thus a resolution for establishment of Local Self Government (LSG) by Lord Ripon was passed in 1882. These newly formed institutions at the local level were given the power to collect taxes to finance sanitation services and public works.  In 1885, the LSG Act was passed and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) came into existence for sanitation at the local level but still necessary staff was not appointed by the Central government. With the outbreak of plague in 1896 in the port towns of Bombay and Calcutta, the need for bringing sanitary reforms into town planning was further reinforced. Immediately, the level of expenditure skyrocketed, unfruitful outcomes of which led to the establishment of Improvement trusts in Bombay (1898) and Calcutta (1912). These trusts were entrusted with the power to demolish existing informal settlements, especially slums and build chawls for workers, along with development of new housing estates and arterial roads, catering to emerging middle class and prospering elite. Soon, the first town planning legislation in India, i.e. ‘The Bombay Town Planning Act, 1915’ came into force on March 6, 1915. The Act primarily provided for the preparation of Town Planning schemes (TPS) for areas in course of development within the jurisdiction of local authority.

With time, however emphasis from using bye-laws and sanitation systems to address these problems shifted to controlling the use of land. At the same time, slum clearance had become the most commonly used method by financially constrained local government in their attempts to beautify the city, pushing the poor to overcrowded and fringe areas. Simultaneously, large residential areas were being developed as an attempt to make cities ‘sanitary’ by spending large amounts of public finance to build the capital infrastructure of drainage and sewerage system. These practices of colonial India led to adoption of slum clearance policy post-Independence in late 1950s, as a way of city beautification.

With Jawaharlal Nehru pivoting urban centers as engines of economic growth post- Independence, cities witnessed a large influx of migrants from all parts of the country pre- and post-partition. Cities and its local government fractured under population pressure. Failure to provide the universal service obligation of adequate sanitation, more and more people were succumbed to defecate in the open. By the time, the First Five Year Plan was rolled out, sanitation became a national agenda, but emphasis was given to rural India and sanitation was just a sub-section of water supply chapter. From second Five Year Plan onwards, funding was allocated for the development and strengthening of state public health engineering departments. It was only in the 8th Five Year Plan (1992-97) that a national attitude was developed towards urban water supply and sanitation. A decade later, the National Urban Sanitation Policy, 2008 was rolled out encompassing a broader spectrum of stakeholders involved in providing sanitation to India’s urban residents. Still, urban sanitation was drowning amidst the attention given to water supply projects. It was only in 2014, that government at the Centre identified open defecation as a priority issue across India, not just in villages and launched the Mission to achieve 100 percent eradication of open defecation by 2019.

Launched with great hope and rigor, the Mission has not been able to fully achieve its agenda. Reports available in public forums have indicated that the Mission in many parts is producing the same results as that of the past. Toilets and infrastructure created are being misused for other purposes or lying unused, particularly storage. Reasons may vary from social attitudes to financial burden to mismatched priorities. The crux of the matter is that sanitation deprivation and open defecation is not a linear concept, it is not as simple as provision of toilets and water to clean it and thence you are able to eradicate open defecation. The history of sanitation, especially urban sanitation, is a much complicated and deep rooted than its modern day pipelines, with spatial manifestation of differentiation.


Keywords: Sanitary Revolution. Physical Segregation. Spatial Differentiation. Universal Service Obligation.

(Photography by Author (2017) : Open Defecation in confined space) 


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