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Down the Drain

How the Swachh Bharat Mission is heading for failure

By Sagar | 1 May 2017

ON 2 OCTOBER 2014, just months into his job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history. Not by coincidence, this was the very date of the birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi. Modi, in dramatic style, appeared before a battery of cameras to sweep the courtyard of a police station in a Dalit residential colony in central Delhi. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his one-hundred-and-fiftieth birth anniversary in 2019,” he said, promising to transform sanitation and waste-management in the country by that day.

Since the launch, Modi has put enormous effort into making the Swachh Bharat Mission a flagship programme of his rule. He spoke of it in his annual Independence Day speeches, televised live from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, and at campaign rallies in election-bound states. He roped in every layer of India’s vast government—from the cabinet, through the ministries and state and district administrations, down all the way to individual urban authorities and village panchayats. He also imposed a cess of 0.5 percent on all taxable services to help raise money for the campaign. Late last year, after Modi demonetised the country’s entire supply of high-value currency notes, the replacement notes, which millions were desperately queuing for, appeared carrying the Swachh Bharat Mission logo—Gandhi’s signature round glasses. It was a move indicative of the government’s incredible zeal for drawing attention to the campaign.

On the second anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission came the proclamation of one of its most touted successes. To mark Gandhi’s birth and the campaign’s founding in 2016, some of the top leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gathered at Porbandar—Gandhi’s birthplace on the Gujarat coast. There, they declared that Gujarat, Modi’s home state, had eradicated open defecation in all urban areas. The minister for urban development, M Venkaiah Naidu, beamed in via live video to hail this “interim gift” to Gandhi, which was to set the stage for the “final gift” in 2019.

One afternoon this January, I took a 40-minute bus ride south-east from the centre of Ahmedabad to Maninagar, an area that thrice elected Modi as its MLA over his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister. I walked past prosperous shops and offices in the area’s main bazaar, then down a road with high-rise apartments on one side and a slum on the other, and, after about 20 minutes, arrived at Millat Nagar, a Dalit and Muslim ghetto. The cramped, garbage-strewn lanes were lined with a few basic businesses—television-repair kiosks, butcher shops, simple eateries—and clusters of young men loitered everywhere. Following my guide, a social activist and local resident named Shakil Ahmad, I jostled my way through the crowds and out to some open ground at the far side of the settlement.

Before us was a large reservoir, called Chandola Lake, with slums dotted along its rim. Where we stood, and all across the roughly ten-metre-wide bank leading to the water, the ground was littered with human faeces. Flies buzzed all around. A small boy squatted down in plain sight to defecate.

Ahmad told me that most of the people living on this side of the lake were Muslims, and most of those on the other Dalits. Millat Nagar, he said, had no sewers or municipal piped water. Its people depended on groundwater, and some homes had single-pit latrines—essentially, crude pits. He said that a large share of Dalits and Muslims in Ahmedabad lived in similar ghettos, under similar conditions.

A mobile latrine—a small van with two cabins perched on its back—stood nearby, surrounded by faeces. An emaciated young man in an orange vest with reflective stripes stood guard beside it. I asked why he had not told the boy to use the mobile latrine. Its container was full, he said, and needed to be emptied, but to do that he had to wait for his boss, a field supervisor, to arrive and authorise it.

Ahmed and I later drove all the way around the lake on his motorcycle, taking whatever roads and lanes kept us closest to its rim. We passed through slum after slum, and wherever the lake peeked out from between the shacks and crude houses I saw its banks littered with trash and excreta. On two occasions, I spotted children defecating in the open. Othen than the mobile latrine stationed behind Millat Nagar, we did not find a single public sanitary facility, whether mobile or otherwise, anywhere along the way.

The man beside the mobile latrine introduced himself as Pankaj Kumar. He said he was a Dalit, from the east of the state, working for a firm contracted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Besides maintaining the latrine, his job was to drive it to specified areas every day, keeping it parked for a few hours at each one, over a 12-hour shift. He had no gloves, mask, or any other cleaning or safety equipment. To clean the latrine and empty out its container, he had to use his bare hands.

AS OF 2011, ACCORDING TO INDIA’S LATEST CENSUS, 53.1 percent of the country’s 246.7 million households had no latrine on their premises. Of these, a small share used public latrines, and the vast majority—half of all the households in the country—practised open defecation.

The United Nations, in a report on water access and sanitation in India released in 2015, said that 564 million of the country’s people still defecated in the open. They accounted for nearly half of the country’s population, and for over half of the 1.1 billion people across the world who practised open defecation. The UN estimated that 65,000 tonnes of uncovered, untreated faeces—equal to the weight of around 180 Airbus A380s—were being introduced into the environment in India every single day.

The Swachh Bharat Mission makes it a major objective to completely eliminate open defecation in India. This is an enormous goal, and an admirable one, but the mission does not stop there. To succeed, it must, by its deadline in 2019, make rapid progress in fighting some of India’s most stubborn and appalling practices of hygiene and sanitation. Besides ending open defecation, it has pledged to deliver door-to-door collection of all of the country’s garbage, the processing of all inorganic trash to generate energy, giant strides in the sanitary treatment of sewage, and a mass transformation in popular belief and behaviour. The campaign also aims to finally deliver on a promise that has been made and broken many times before: to completely end the barbarity of “manual scavenging.” This is a euphemism for the disposal of excrement by hand that, for centuries, has been the exclusive lot of people at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy. The employment of manual scavengers, and the construction of latrines that rely on their services, is prohibited by Indian law.

How the mission performs on this last promise will be a major indicator of how it performs on an array of its other goals. The first step in eliminating open defecation is to make sure that people have latrines to use in the first place—and on this the mission is making significant headway. To end manual scavenging, these latrines must be of the kinds that eliminate the handling of fresh excreta, and must be used as per design. But, as the mobile latrine surrounded by faeces near Millat Nagar showed, having infrastructure alone is not enough. Maintaining sanitary facilities also requires systems to handle the sewage they capture—and on this, the Swachh Bharat Mission raises questions for which the government does not appear to have adequate answers. Manual scavenging exists in the yawning gap between the amount of excreta produced by India’s enormous population and the country’s existing capacity for processing it sanitarily. If that gap is not closed, especially as the government strives to get more than half a billion people who did not previously use latrines to start using them, it will perpetuate the same old practices.

There is also another factor in getting all of India’s households and communities to use latrines, and to take collective responsibility for their upkeep. Many of the current practices responsible for the abysmal state of sanitation in the country are rooted in traditional notions of purity and hygiene—often the same ones that normalise the allocation of sanitation work to the oppressed castes. Transforming sanitation in India will require a large-scale change in these beliefs, yet here again the Swachh Bharat Mission is faltering.

Last month marked two and a half years since the Swachh Bharat Mission began, bringing it halfway to its deadline. In anticipation of that milestone, I began to study the campaign, to understand how it has performed so far and whether it is on course to meet its targets. This meant looking beyond the giant billboards, grand official pronouncements and celebrity photo ops that have generated a great deal of attention for the campaign so far, and asking questions about its design, finances and performance. I read reports, interviewed experts and filed a barrage of queries with government offices under the Right to Information Act. To see what impact the campaign was having on the ground, I also travelled through Ahmedabad, Varanasi and Delhi, as well as the villages of Nageypur and Jayapur, both on the outskirts of Varanasi.

Modi, in his speeches and on his social-media feeds, has trumpeted the Swachh Bharat Mission to the point that it is inextricably associated with him. Much of the promotional material associated with the scheme has bolstered this connection too, aggressively deploying the prime minister’s image alongside iconography invoking Gandhi.

All the places I went on my reporting are closely tied to Modi. Ahmedabad is the largest and most prosperous city in Gujarat, the state he ruled for 13 years and which his party rules to this day. Delhi is the seat of his current government, and for a decade now the BJP has run the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the largest of the national capital’s three municipal authorities. Varanasi is Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency. Nageypur and Jayapur have been “adopted” by him under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, which urges members of parliament to promote development initiatives in villages of their selection. In these places more than anywhere else, the prime minister and his government have a massive incentive to make the campaign succeed. The status of the Swachh Bharat Mission in them offers an indication—likely a positively biased one—of its overall progress elsewhere.

Most of what I saw, heard and read was not encouraging. India is in the midst of a latrine-construction spree. In April, official numbers from the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin and the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban—respectively, the campaign’s rural and urban components—said that over 42.6 million latrines have already been built. (The Swachh Bharat Mission also has three other, relatively small, “sub-missions”: one to ensure that there are latrines in all of the country’s public schools, a second to ensure that there are latrines in all of its anganwadi centres, and a third to build latrines as part of other government programmes, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana.) But there are indications that even those with access to new latrines do not always use them, that latrines are being denied to particular marginalised groups, and that not enough is being done to end manual scavenging. There are also concerns that the mechanisms for verifying the productive use of funds under the campaign are not sufficiently strong. Evidence on the ground calls into question many of the government’s claims of success so far, pointing to the unreliability of data being produced by the authorities. The government and the World Bank have signed an agreement for a loan of $1.5 billion to support the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, but the release of this funding has been stalled for over half a year due to the government’s delay in commissioning a promised independent verification of official data on the present state of sanitation in rural India.

That verification is meant to create a trustworthy baseline against which to measure the performance of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. As it is designed, this campaign, like the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, is meant to have its progress regularly verified through independent evaluation. As I discovered, these measures are not functioning as they should. The government’s behavior suggests a disturbing resistance to transparency and accountability—a possibility reinforced by the rejection of many of my RTI requests on thin procedural grounds. As my reporting proceeded, I became increasingly convinced that the government’s data and claims on the Swachh Bharat Mission should be met with scepticism until they are checked by credible non-government agencies, and until their findings are released for public scrutiny.

India’s crisis of sanitation has huge costs. The UN estimates that around 117,000 of the deaths of Indian children under the age of five in 2015 were caused by diarrhoea, the incidence of which correlates closely with the quality of sanitation in an area. This means that 10 percent of all deaths under the age of five in the country are due to the disease—among the highest proportions of anywhere in the world. Diarrhoea and other diseases tied to poor sanitation can have debilitating long-term effects, such as malnutrition and stunting. They also have costs in terms of decreased productivity, expenditure on treatment and premature deaths. A 2015 report on the global costs of poor sanitation, co-authored by the charity WaterAid, valued the loss to India’s economy at $106 billion per year, or over 5 percent of its gross domestic product.

Against that, the Rs 2.23 lakh crore that the Swachh Bharat Mission is estimated to cost—$36.3 billion, by the exchange rate at the time the campaign began—seems a prudent investment. But as Manoj Kumar Jha, the head of the department of social work at the University of Delhi, told me, “Modi-ji has the art and ability of creating an event which is seen 24-7 across TV channels,” and the Swachh Bharat Mission “fits well in his scheme of lots of sound but low substance.” If Jha is right, much of the money being spent for the campaign is going down the drain.

IN THE MIDDLE OF CHAMANPURA, a residential area about a 20-minute drive across the Sabarmati River from the centre of Ahmedabad, is a wide rectangle of bare ground. A road runs along one side of it, a narrow lane leading to a slum runs along another, and a low wall bounds its remaining edges, separating it from the rough shacks beyond. A hulking green trash container stands to one side. Some graffiti on the wall shows a man with a broomstick standing beside a tree and an Indian flag, with the words “Clean India” floating above him.

I approached this place on a bright morning, at around 6 am, on the back of a motorcycle driven by Purshottam Vaghela, a Dalit activist employed by Janvikas, an NGO that works with manual scavengers. One man stood in its centre, sprinkling a white powder on the ground, while two others shovelled trash from the container into the back of a tractor. As I walked towards the man in the middle, I felt myself step on something mushy, and realised that it had stuck to my shoe. I looked, and saw that it was a paste of the white powder and fresh excrement.

The man was Kaushik Kalubhai Solanki. He looked to be somewhere in his thirties, and said he was a Dalit, working full-time with the Ahmedabad municipal corporation. This place, he explained, served as an open toilet, and he came here every morning to clean it. According to the 2011 census, some 28,000 of the 1.2 million households under the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had no sanitary facilities, and their members defecated in the open. Of the households that did have sanitary facilities, 188 had dry latrines cleaned by hand, and just under 6,000 had single-pit latrines, which are often emptied manually. About 73,500 had latrines linked to septic tanks, which are also typically drained by manual scavengers.

Solanki carried a long-handled instrument that resembled a wooden mop, but the crosspiece, instead of a rag, sported rows of iron spikes along its bottom. Solanki used it to scrape faeces off the ground prior to sprinkling the area with the powder—bleaching powder, as it turned out, which is a disinfectant. Once he scraped together a pile, the men with the shovels threw it into the tractor along with the trash, to be dumped in a landfill.

Solanki had no water to use for his job, and there was not a single tap in sight. He lifted one of his slippered feet, sole to the top. It was caked thickly in the same mixture I had stepped in.

It was not easy to catch Solanki at work. What he does, and what other sanitation workers in Ahmedabad do, is rarely witnessed by the majority of the city’s residents, including the people they clean up after. Those who defecate in the open tend to do so before daybreak, when darkness affords them some privacy. Most sanitation workers, in Ahmedabad as in other cities, begin their shifts very early, and by the time the whole city begins its day their work is done. This makes their labour largely invisible—though if they ever stopped, the results would be all too noticeable.

I spent three days in Ahmedabad, visiting scores of neighbourhoods and meeting several activists and social workers. For the first two days, I set off into the city in mid morning, by which point sanitation workers had already cleaned the spaces where open defecation occurs. I spent several hours driving around neighbourhoods near the city centre with Saumil Fidelis, a young Janvikas activist. He was pleasantly surprised that we did not see signs of open defecation, and told me the situation in these places had improved. “It seems there has been some action on our complaints,” he said.

On the third day, on which I met Solanki, I woke up two hours before dawn to join Vaghela on a motorbike tour of places such as Odno Tekro, Sarkivad, Nagorivad and Juna Vadaj—slums largely occupied by Dalits and Muslims. The sanitary conditions in all the areas we visited were very poor, though slightly better than in Millat Nagar. Some areas had public latrines with sewer connections, but even in these, the cleaners, all employed by contractors running these latrines for the municipal corporation, had only brooms and crude tools to work with, and no safety equipment at all.

In Sarkivad, a slum in the Shahpur area, we pulled up next to an eight-cabin public latrine that Vaghela said served roughly a hundred households. Scores of men and women headed towards it, each carrying a plastic bottle or a lota full of water. Inside, each of the stalls had a tap, but when I checked none of them had any water.

When I stepped back outside after looking into the stalls, I saw that a small van with a water tank and pump on its back had been parked nearby. Lettering on its side said it was on duty for the municipal corporation. Two men unfurled a hose that started spewing water. The latrine’s caretaker, pinching the end of the hose to form a jet, used it to flush the faeces in the stalls into the drains. This was the only time in the day he got water to help him clean. Jitendra Rathod, another activist with Janvikas, later told me the municipal corporation operated no more than half a dozen such vans, far from enough to cover the whole city.

It did not take long to spot sanitation workers clearing faeces from places much like the one where I saw Solanki, and also from many roadsides and footpaths. I met Gayatri Ben on a footpath in central Ahmedabad, working in the dark. A Dalit, from the Bhangi caste, she said she left home before dawn every day to roam the city streets picking up excrement, armed only with a broom and a metal dustpan. She said she was employed by a firm contracted by the municipal corporation, and was paid Rs 6,000 a month. Narendrabhai Fakira, another sanitation worker and also a Dalit, stood nearby with his hands covered in bleaching powder. He initially thought I was a municipal officer out on inspection, and appeared nervous. When assured that he had nothing to fear, he complained that he did not get so much as water to help him do his job. He carried a long stick with a flat blade attached to one end, which he used as a scraper and a shovel.

When I sat down to speak with Rathod, I learnt that nothing that I had observed was exceptional. Rathod regularly leaves his home before dawn, with a camera in hand, to document open defecation, uncovered excreta and the labour of sanitation workers. On the screen of his small digital camera, he pulled up some of his photographs and videos. An entire collection of images showed children defecating in the open. One series of videos, shot in public latrines in various parts of the city last year, showed floors almost completely covered in faeces, and sanitation workers cleaning them with brooms and other crude tools, sometimes with the help of a few buckets of water. The scenes were far worse than anything I had seen in the city’s public latrines myself, and, even watching on the tiny screen, I felt a violent revulsion. On several occasions, unable to watch any more, I asked Rathod to stop the footage.

Rathod said he and his colleagues regularly sent such videos and photographs to municipal officials. They made it a point to send a large batch of them out to officials in September last year, just as Gujarat was preparing to declare the end of open defecation in all urban areas. That did not stop the government from going ahead with the declaration.

As of mid April, on the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin website, a ranking of districts “based on IHHL+ODF coverage”—that is, on the availability of individual household latrines and the absence of open defecation—showed Ahmedabad district as the best in the country, with “100.00%” coverage. The top 14 spots in the ranking were all occupied by districts in Gujarat.

THERE HAS, AT BEST, been little action under the Swachh Bharat Mission to end the employment of manual scavengers, to rehabilitate them, or even to improve their working conditions. What I saw in Ahmedabad was a breach of the law against manual scavenging by the government itself—Solanki said he was employed directly by the municipal corporation—or by firms contracted by it—who employed all the other sanitation workers I met in the city. The hiring of manual scavengers by government contractors was evident in Varanasi and Delhi too. When I raised concerns about this with government officials, the overwhelming response was apathy.

This apathy continues a long legacy across much of India. In Gujarat, I found it to be as deeply rooted as anywhere. Modi, at least rhetorically, has championed the end of manual scavenging under the Swachh Bharat Mission, but in all his years in charge of Gujarat his government did nothing to further this goal.

The struggle to get provisions against manual scavenging into Indian legislation was painfully drawn-out. In 1993, the parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. The act came into force in 1997, and applied automatically in all Union Territories and in the six states that had earlier passed resolutions asking for it—Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and West Bengal. Because sanitation is a state subject under the constitution, each of the remaining states had to pass its own resolution to enact the new law in its jurisdiction. Many states never brought the act into practice at all. Even where it was in force, it never produced a single conviction.

In the years that followed, there were numerous legal petitions against the act’s lacklustre implementation. Following pressure from the Supreme Court, in 2013 the parliament passed a revised law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, or MS Act, which was designed to automatically take effect across the entire country.

The following year, in March, the Supreme Court ruled that it is a punishable offence to send manual scavengers into sewers or septic tanks without adequate safety equipment, and that the family of any manual scavenger who has died while cleaning a sewer since 1993 shall receive official compensation of Rs 10 lakh. This came seven months before the start of the Swachh Bharat Mission, and 11 years after a petition on these matters was submitted to the court by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a national organisation for the welfare of manual scavengers.

In Gujarat, Rathod, with the help of colleagues and volunteers, has been documenting the deaths of manual scavengers engaged in cleaning sewers, and trying to secure compensation for their families under the Supreme Court ruling. Rathod told me he has identified 146 such cases dating from 1993 to the present.

Rathod said that the actual number of such deaths over this period is likely much higher. His tally only includes cases that have come to light via the media, and in which the organisation has been able to secure death certificates and First Information Reports confirming the circumstances of death. Often, Rathod said, deaths of manual scavengers in sewers are registered as “accidental” events by the police, obscuring what actually happened.

All the cases Rathod has identified are from cities and towns. “We don’t know if manual scavengers are dying in septic tanks in the villages,” he said, “because it’s difficult to get news from the villages.”

In 2014, Rathod and his partners began approaching government agencies in Gujarat to secure compensation for eligible families under the 2013 Supreme Court ruling. Over two years, they contacted the state departments of urban development, rural development and social justice, as well as numerous municipal corporations, but were rebuffed everywhere. Officials “did not know whose work it was to award compensation to manual scavengers,” Rathod said.

Then, an organisation of manual scavengers called Manav Garima, which collaborates with Janvikas, approached the Gujarat High Court to seek an order for government action on the compensation. In December 2016, following a court directive, the department of social justice designated responsible authorities to handle compensation applications and payouts: the department of urban development for deaths in urban areas, and the department of rural development for deaths in rural areas.

This is as far as the matter has come. None of the families in the 146 cases identified by Rathod have yet received any compensation. Manav Garima’s petition is awaiting its next hearing before the high court.

Nobody has a reliable count of how many manual scavengers have died on the job in India. The National Crime Records Bureau counts deaths due to “fall in pit/manhole”— in 2014, for instance, the record shows 780 fatal falls into pits, and 195 into manholes—but has no indication as to how many of these involved manual scavengers. The Safai Karmachari Andolan has identified 487 deaths of manual scavengers on the job since 1993, but this only includes cases with corroborating documentation, from only 16 states. Sana Sultana, the SKA’s media coordinator, told me the organisation does not have the resources to monitor the numbers across the rest of the country. By the SKA’s count, so far only 57 families of deceased manual scavengers have been paid the compensation due to them under the Supreme Court judgment.

What is clear is that manual scavengers continue to work in sewers in dangerous conditions, and to die doing so. This March, in Bengaluru, three manual scavengers died of asphyxiation while trying to clear a congested sewer without any safety equipment. (The gear for such work should include breathing apparatus, protective clothing, proper lighting, and detectors of poisonous gases such as methane, as well as mechanised cleaning equipment such as suction pipes.) All three were employed by a firm contracted by the local water board, and owned by the Ramky Group, a Hyderabad-based company with interests in real estate and waste management. (The company has been contracted to build numerous waste-processing plants under the Swachh Bharat Mission.) The Karnataka government announced that it would pay compensation to the families of the dead workers, and registered an FIR against the contractor.

The struggle for compensation for deaths on the job is only one part of the larger struggle to secure safety and dignity for manual scavengers. Sadly, progress on all fronts of this struggle has been painfully slow, and there has been no change in this since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

In January 2007, the central government introduced the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, to be implemented by the ministry of social justice and empowerment. Under the scheme, after revisions in the wake of the MS Act in 2013, each family that includes a manual scavenger is eligible to receive, among other things, a one-time cash grant of Rs 40,000, skill-development training for two years supported with a monthly stipend, and loans of up to Rs 10 lakh to help establish alternative sources of income, going up to Rs 15 lakh for “sanitation related projects like vacuum loader, suction machine with vehicle, garbage disposal vehicle, pay and use toilets etc.”

Going by numbers from the ministry, the scheme’s implementation has been very patchy. At its height, in the 2008–2009 financial year, the scheme disbursed Rs 100 crore. But over the next four years, this sum fell sharply, and for two years the scheme registered no expenditure at all—indicating that it had not yet used up the funds allocated to it earlier. In the 2013–2014 financial year, the scheme was promised Rs 570 crore under the union budget, suggesting a massive increase in the government’s ambitions for it, but actual expenditure came to only Rs 35 crore. That pattern, of results not matching ambitions, has repeated ever since, even with the Swachh Bharat Mission in place. Despite the union budget earmarking over Rs 400 crore for the scheme in each of the two following years, the sum of these funds expended in both years was nil. On its website, the ministry qualifies this statistic by noting “Adequate fund available with NSKFDC”—the National Safai Karamacharis Finance and Development Corporation, a financial body that disburses the scheme’s funds. Simply, this means that the fund has still not spent the money it was allocated prior to the 2013–2014 financial year. In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in March 2016, the ministry of social justice and empowerment reported that, between 2013 and 2016, the scheme’s actual spending came to Rs 37.7 crore—only 2.5 percent of the funds it was promised in the union budget over this period.

A major hurdle to reaching all of India’s manual scavengers with this or any other scheme is the fact that the government has never reliably identified and counted all of them. The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 shows 180,000 households earning a living through manual scavenging, but numerous critics have identified mistakes in the data behind this document, and its release was delayed for several years as the government addressed errors.

The Supreme Court, in its 2014 ruling on the case filed by the SKA, observed, “Due to mounting pressure of this court, in March 2013, the central government announced a survey of manual scavengers. The survey, however, was confined only to 3546 statutory towns and did not extend to rural areas. Even with this limited mandate … the survey has shown remarkably little progress.”

Responsibility for the survey also falls to the ministry of social justice. In a document uploaded to the survey’s official website, the ministry states that “no credible data regarding the number of manual scavengers in the country is available. However, the Census 2011 data shows that there are still some 26 lakh insanitary latrines”—by the document’s definition, ones “in which nightsoil is serviced by humans and animals, and “from which nightsoil is disposed into open drain.”

In response to an RTI request, the ministry of social justice wrote to me that “the Chief Executive Officer of the Municipality/Municipal Corporation is responsible for undertaking the survey of manual scavengers in the urban and rural areas respectively. The details of identified manual scavengers are required to be uploaded by the state government/Union Territory administration concerned.” As of 31 January 2017, the ministry’s reply said, a total of 12,725 manual scavengers had been counted, in 13 states: around 10,000 in Uttar Pradesh, and the rest all in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Gujarat is among the states missing from the list.

Even the numbers the ministry has gathered cannot be trusted. Thawar Chand Gehlot, the minister for social justice and empowerment, admitted this in July last year, in a meeting of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. According to the minutes of the meeting, Gehlot told officials that, when considered against census data showing well over 20 lakh insanitary latrines in the country, a national total of somewhere in the vicinity of 12,000 manual scavengers “is unrealistic as so many insanitary latrines will not clean themselves.”

In a “Comprehensive Action Plan for Swachh Bharat Mission,” submitted to the union cabinet two months after the campaign was launched, the ministry of social justice promised “implementation of Manual Scavenging Act, 2013 including identification and conversion/demolition of all insanitary latrines by 2015.” I sent the ministry an RTI request for state-wise numbers of insanitary toilets demolished or converted since 2014.

The ministry forwarded my request to the NSKFDC, which comes under its supervision. (It is standard procedure for offices to forward requests for information they do not have to authorities that they believe might have it.) The NSKFDC turned my request down, noting that it “provides financial assistance to target group at concessional rates of interest and also provide skill development training programmes. Therefore, the matter under reference doesn’t comes under the purview of NSKFDC.”

Another item under the ministry’s plan of action is “three sanitation relating schemes of NSKFDC which includes target of 821 pay toilets in five years.” I sent an RTI request to the NSKFDC for the number of toilets that have been built under these schemes, but it was turned down with a note stating, “the information in this regard is not available with the office.” The response noted, however, that the NSKFDC had disbursed Rs 4.36 crore to the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha for the construction of pay-and-use toilets to be managed by the “target group.” It did not say how much of the disbursed money had been utilised.

Documents directly from the Swachh Bharat Mission also raise doubts over how seriously the campaign is taking manual scavenging. The guidelines for the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, which is run by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, state that the construction of insanitary latrines is not to be permitted in rural areas, but do not explicitly list the eradication of manual scavenging as a goal. In stating the goal of achieving open-defecation-free status, the guidelines did not initially, when they were first issued in December 2014, include any criteria by which to judge if an area had secured it. In June 2015, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation issued additional guidelines that established the following criteria: “no visible feces found in the village/environment,” and “every household as well as public/community institutions using safe technology option for disposal of faeces (tip: safe technology means no contamination of surface soil, ground water or surface, excreta inaccessible to flies and animal, no handling of fresh excreta and freedom from odour and unsightly condition).” In December 2016, the ministry issued additional “ODF sustainability guidelines,” on how an area can maintain open-defecation-free status after initially achieving it. These omitted the phrase “no handling of fresh excreta” from the criteria for open-defecation-free status.

The guidelines for the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, which comes under the ministry of urban development, do make the “eradication of manual scavenging” an explicit aim. However, they have no indication of how the ministry understands open-defecation-free status.

In March, I telephoned Jagan Shah, the director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, an autonomous organisation that provides research and training to support the ministry of urban development. As its director, Shah holds a seat on the National Advisory and Review Committee, the top administrative body for the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, which brings together representatives of various ministries and government bodies under the leadership of the secretary of the ministry of urban development.

I asked Shah about efforts to end manual scavenging. He said that, in 2014, he had suggested presenting new equipment to sanitation workers, and instituting annual prizes for them. But, he told me, the committee had rejected the idea, saying, “Arre woh toh contractor ke log hain” (They are the contractors’ employees). In his view, the government had raised the issue of manual scavenging “euphemistically only.” And, he continued, “Aur usko jyada tawajjo nahi diya gaya” (It was not given much consideration).

IN THE STATE SECRETARIAT in Gandhinagar—Gujarat’s capital, situated 25 kilometres north of Ahmedabad—I met Poonamchand Parmar, an additional chief secretary of the state department of urban development and the person responsible for implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban in the state. Over a 20-minute conversation, Parmar gave me numerous assurances of the campaign’s ongoing success. I asked why settlements around Chandola Lake, and also in numerous other parts of the city, still lacked basic sanitary facilities, but the question did not faze him. He picked up the phone to speak to his staff, and asked them to send someone to the Chandola Lake area. Then he went back to describing the successes of sanitation in Gujarat.

Throughout, Parmar lauded the efforts of Modi. From “his very first day” as chief minister, Parmar said, “Narendra bhai was very keen about cleanliness. … His basic concept of cleanliness is very high.” In February 2014, Modi launched a statewide cleanliness campaign named the Mahatma Gandhi Swachhata Mission. Parmar said that Gujarat had already been building latrines under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan—a national cleanliness campaign under the United Progressive Alliance government that was superseded by the Swachh Bharat Mission. But with the Mahatma Gandhi Swachhata Mission, he told me, the state began campaigning rigorously to make sure that people used them. That, according to Parmar, laid the ground for the state’s achievements in ending open defecation. “It’s not happening by simply providing toilets.”

What I saw in Ahmedabad belied Parmar’s praise for Modi’s past commitment to public sanitation. So did a recent report on socio-economic conditions in Gujarat by the Comptroller and Auditor General, a constitutional body tasked with scrutinising all government work. The CAG found that, despite the state government’s claims of significant progress on managing waste, less than three percent of Gujarat’s municipalities have any segregation systems in place, and none of its municipal corporations have segregation rates of more than 18 percent. Further, none of the state’s municipalities have working sewage-treatment facilities, and only one has anything close to comprehensive sewer coverage.

There is also plenty in Modi’s past to call into question his claim to be a crusader against manual scavenging.

In November 2007, the Times of India carried a brief report titled “‘Karmayogi’ swears by caste order.” The journalist Rajiv Shah wrote:
In a yet unreleased book, ‘Karmayog’, Chief Minister Narendra Modi has stirred the hornet’s nest by writing that scavenging was an ‘experience in spirituality’ for the Valmikis. This sub-caste among Dalits have been condemned to scavenging jobs for centuries. … About 5,000 copies of the book—authored by Modi and published in October 2007 by the Gujarat government’s state information department—could not be released for public distribution because of electoral code of conduct. Sponsored by Modi’s favourite public sector undertaking, Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, Modi’s aim in this 101-page booklet is to spread his ideas of karmayoga. But his blatant casteism has outraged Dalit groups.

I met Shah, and asked how he had managed to procure this unreleased volume. He told me that he was a political correspondent for the Times of India at the time, and often met with senior bureaucrats. He came across the book by accident, he said, in the office of Kuniyil Kailashnathan, Modi’s principal secretary.

Shah recounted this encounter with Kailashnathan in a 2012 blog post for the Times of India:

A just-published book was lying on his table, “Karmayog”, authored by Modi. It was actually a collection of Modi’s what seemed to many a babu erudite lectures at the annual bureaucratic conclave called Chintan Shibir. I asked Kailashnathan, whom I have always found a very reluctant man, whether I could have the book. The top Modi aide looked at me suspiciously, smiled, and after some bit of hesitation, forwarded the book to me. “No mischief, Rajiv”.

In his report, Shah quoted from the book:

I do not believe that they (Valmiks) have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of work generation after generation. … At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.

Shah described in his blog post how he met Kailashnathan again a few days after his report appeared. The bureaucrat blamed him for creating “havoc,” and demanded the book back. Shah obliged. “Later,” he wrote, “I was told, the Gujarat information department, on instructions from Modi, withdrew the book from circulation.”

Before he returned the book, Shah had it scanned for his own records. He shared a copy of the text, published in Gujarati, with me.

There is a striking resemblance between Modi’s view of manual scavengers and those of the mascot of the Swachh Bharat Mission, Mohandas Gandhi. In an article published in 1933, Gandhi wrote in his Hindi weekly, Harijan Sevak:

So far as the work of the so-called untouchables is concerned, if by reform of their work it is meant that they should give up their trades, it is not only unnecessary but also harmful, because these trades are of the nature of public service. The washerman, the barber, the cobbler, the Dom, the scavengers are all true servants of the people. If they were to give up their work, the people would be doomed. The reformers believe that in treating these people as untouchables, caste Hindus have made a mistake. It is the firm conviction of the reformer that the work of the scavenger and the Dom is sacred.

In another article, published in the English-language Harijan in 1936, he stated that “an ideal Bhangi, while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty.”

Gandhi’s views on manual scavengers have been extensively criticised. Modi’s views in Karmayog merit nothing less. As the poet Nirav Patel, quoted in Shah’s 2007 report, asked in response to the book, “Why didn’t it occur to Modi that the spirituality involved in doing menial jobs hasn’t ever been experienced by the upper castes?”

THE SWACHH BHARAT MISSION IS NOT the Indian government’s first attempt at solving the country’s sanitation crisis. In 2015, the CAG released its last performance report on the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. The report notes that a “rural sanitation programme has been in existence in India, in some form or other, since 1954.” That effort was significantly ramped up in 1986, when the government launched the Central Rural Sanitation Programme—described in the report as an “infrastructure oriented programme with high levels of subsidies for latrine construction.” Then, in 1999, “not satisfied with the slow growth of sanitation coverage under CRSP, Government of India launched Total Sanitation Campaign,” which, in 2012, was rechristened the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan.

Through the years of these programmes, India did make some progress on sanitation; between 1990 and 2015, the UN reported, some 394 million Indians stopped defecating in the open. But the overall situation remained dismal, and the government’s sanitation programmes have been widely acknowledged as failures. The Total Sanitation Campaign aimed to make sure that every Indian household had an individual latrine by 2012, and that each of the country’s public schools and anganwadi centres had a communal latrine by 2013. That target was never reached. The CAG report noted that less than half the number of household latrines the scheme aimed to build between 2009 and 2014 were ever constructed. The UN’s 2015 report on water and sanitation said that 60 percent of Indians had no access to “improved sanitation”—facilities that prevent direct human contact with raw excreta.

The audit report also listed a slew of other failings. In the 53 districts that the auditors studied as test cases, over a third of the latrines constructed were not in use, “due to reasons like poor quality of construction, incomplete structure, non-maintenance, etc.” Across the country, “due importance was not given to IEC”—information, education and communication—although these are “very critical for creating awareness about the benefits of sanitation and hygiene.” Only a small fraction of the funds earmarked for monitoring and evaluation were ever used for these purposes, “there was no system” to verify implementation data submitted by authorities on the ground, and “physical progress was over reported.” Often, programme funds remained “parked/unutilized” for long periods of time after they had been released to individual states, and advances paid to “various implementing agencies were outstanding.”

In conclusion, the report lamented that “the lessons learnt and experimentations through this long journey do not seem to have made much impact on the sanitation status in the country.” With the Swachh Bharat Mission, the same trend looks likely to repeat itself. On paper, the campaign has responded to at least some historical lessons. In practice, however, it appears to be proceeding much like the programmes that came before it.

In December 2014, in preparation for formally partnering with Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, the World Bank released a “concept stage” report on the rural campaign’s feasibility. In light of the past, it noted possible risks to the programme’s success, including “weak implementation of policies to ensure social inclusion, non-availability of private land with poor and vulnerable household for toilets and weak participatory process involving women and other vulnerable groups at planning and implementation.” From what I saw in Ahmedabad, and elsewhere on my travels, the Swachh Bharat Mission has not done enough to mitigate this concern, and socially marginalised groups are often excluded from the benefits of the campaign.

In November 2015, a World Bank report of the campaign’s prospective environmental and social impact observed that the “past approach mainly focused towards toilet construction to improve coverage and access,” and said that the proposed approach of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin “has shifted on usage of toilets and behavioral change.” As I was to see in Nageypur and Jayapur, there is little evidence of this being implemented on the ground. The report also noted that the government’s definition of open-defecation-free status “includes safe disposal of excreta,” and that this “needs to be adhered to in implementation.” Unfortunately, it has not been.

The CAG report on the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan warned that without “realistic planning and … large scale Information, Education and Communication campaigns to bring about behavioural changes,” and unless “overall governance at the grass root level improves, mere deployment of resources may not have any significant impact.” Among its recommendations for “achievement of desired goal of Swachh Bharat,” it called for an “effective mechanism for independent evaluations,” and “ensuring data integrity which alone can provide reliable periodic status check and timely remedial measures.” As Gujarat’s false declaration of having eliminated open defecation shows, there are major problems with the reliability of the government’s data on the execution of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

There is also a lack of transparency in the government’s data on the spending of campaign funds. The accounts made public so far disclose the sums that have been released to individual states or for individual initiatives, but do not include proof of how these funds have been used, or if they have been used at all. Since this was a recognised problem in the past too, the guidelines for the Swachh Bharat Mission make it clear that the release of new instalments of funding to the states will be contingent upon them showing evidence that previous funds have already been spent. But as a World Bank report on the financial management of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, released in November 2015, observed, “the quality of actual expend reported at national and state levels are based on fund releases and therefore, do not facilitate meaningful assessment of financial performance.”

Another historical lesson that the Swachh Bharat Mission has not sufficiently responded to is the fact that improvements in sanitation are closely linked to improvements in access to water. The government’s twelfth Five Year Plan, which came into effect in 2012, noted that “many slip-backs in the NGP”—an initiative under the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan to reward villages that eliminated open defecation—“have been attributed to non-availability of water.” The World Bank report on the feasibility of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin noted that the campaign has taken “cognizance of linkages between water supply and toilet usage,” and that “the financial incentives for toilets has been enhanced to provide a water storage facility at the toilet, helping to ensure sufficient water for flushing and hand washing.” But, it added, “a change in guidelines is not in itself a greater assurance of achievement and sustenance of results.”

In November 2015, a year into the Swachh Bharat Mission, the World Bank released an appraisal report on its proposed loan of $1.5 billion in support of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. It stated that the campaign is “technically sound,” but also warned that, going by past experience, its targets were vastly unrealistic. It noted, “the timeframe provided for the Operation (i.e., completion by October 2, 2019) does pose challenges. The short time frame ramps up the coverage targets to about five times the best historical performance, even for the better-performing states … Several of the states with high prevalence of open defecation are yet to put in place the institutional frameworks and the strategies for achieving the goals of rural sanitation.” Further, it stated that the ministry of drinking water and sanitation “is thinly staffed and currently does not have sufficient institutional capacity and personnel in house to provide the support to states with respect to delivering on the ambitious goal of SBM. Thus, there is considerable scope for improving the program’s processes and institutional arrangements.”

All of this is particularly troubling given the enormous sums of money involved in the Swachh Bharat Mission. In its first report on the campaign, in November 2014, the World Bank said that “over the 1999-2013 period,” India’s central and state governments “are reported to have expended INR 150 billion (USD2.4 billion)”—that is, Rs 15,000 crore. By all accounts, much of that money was wasted. The Swachh Bharat Mission proposes to spend around 15 times that in just five years.

IT TOOK 40 MINUTES by bus from Varanasi’s main railway station to cover the 25 kilometres or so due west to Nageypur. The village, which falls within the district of Varanasi, is small and agrarian. When I visited, in early February, the villagers I spoke to put its population at a few thousand at most, and were quick to break this down by caste. They said Rajbhars make up about half the village, and Patels and Mauryas—both, like the Rajbhars, categorised under the Other Backward Classes—perhaps another quarter. The rest of the village, they said, is Dalit.

Each community lived in an enclave of its own, making the village an archipelago of clustered homes amid a sea of green fields. As I roamed, the villagers identified each cluster: the Rajbhar basti, the Patel basti, the Maurya basti. The Dalit enclave stood some distance apart from all of the rest. The OBC villagers called it the Harijan basti. (“Harijan” was Gandhi’s preferred term for those at the bottom of the caste ladder, and he translated it as “children of god.” Most people from the oppressed castes find the term condescending.)

In the OBC enclaves, I spotted latrines outside almost every house, many of them clearly new. It was common to see more than one latrine for a single house. In the Maurya basti, I found five latrines lined up along a 20-foot stretch. Some local men told me that the nearby house was home to five brothers, all of them married, and each one had gotten a subsidised latrine. This was in violation of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin guidelines, which allow for only one subsidised toilet for each household.

The Dalit enclave, meanwhile, had barely any latrines at all. The villagers here told me that only 26 of the 150 houses in the enclave had had toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Four or five of these were the houses that sat closest to the village road, creating a misleading facade. A resident named Dharmadevi told me that she had already gone five times to the village’s sarpanch, a Rajbhar man, asking for assistance to build a latrine, but had been turned away every time.

I saw only one public latrine in Nageypur, situated a short walk from the Dalit enclave. I looked into its stalls, and found them dirty. There was no water in the taps.

Close by, separated from the latrine by a low brick wall, was a statue of the anti-caste icon Bhimrao Ambedkar. Three metal benches had been installed nearby. Branded into the backrest of each one was one of Modi’s favourite slogans, “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” (Together with everyone, development for everyone). The prime minister’s name appeared prominently underneath.

As of the 2011 census, 73 percent of Varanasi district’s rural households did not have latrines, and 71 percent practised open defecation. Only 1.8 percent of rural households had access to public latrines. No villages in Varanasi district have been declared free of open defecation.

Most of the latrines I saw in the OBC enclaves were kept locked up. The people who owned them had some strange reasons to explain this. One villager told me that latrines left him itchy, so he avoided them. One man in the Patel basti told me that the corrugated-sheet walls of his latrine made it too hot to sit inside, even in the middle of winter. Several villagers told me that there were similar complaints against the latrines built here under an early phase of construction under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and that those who started building later had instead gotten brick-and-cement cabins, which are more expensive.

There were more serious complaints too. I did not see a single latrine in Nageypur with a piped water connection. Several of the villagers I spoke to said that their latrines, since they had no water for flushing, had become filthy and begun to stink.

The guidelines of the Swachh Bharat Mission allow the construction of several types of latrine. There are those that connect to sewage lines, but sewage lines are not available in rural areas. There are also those connected to a septic tank, but these are also expensive. Besides these, there are twin-pit latrines, in which excreta is channelled into one of two pits that are alternately sealed when full, at a frequency of several years. The excreta in the sealed pit is allowed to digest in situ, leaving behind a harmless residue that can then be manually removed. Other options include more advanced “bio-digester” and “bio-tank” latrines, which use bacteria to digest excreta and leave no residue behind.

Twin-pit latrines are the cheapest of these. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban guidelines estimate that each of these costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 to build. All the others are estimated to cost upwards of Rs 20,000 each. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin allows a Rs 12,000 subsidy for every household building a latrine. The economics of all of this make twin-pit latrines the default choice for most households.

The ministry of drinking water and sanitation does not publish a type-wise breakdown of the new latrines built under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. However, I did not see a single bio-digester or bio-tank latrine in Nageypur, or in any other place I visited.

As common as open defecation is in India’s cities, the real front line in the battle against it runs through the country’s villages. According to UN estimates, around two-thirds of people in rural India defecate in the open, compared to around an eighth of those in urban areas. The Swachh Bharat Mission has allocated resources accordingly, and the projected spending on its rural component is Rs 1.34 lakh crore, 60 percent of the campaign’s total projected outlay. (The World Bank, using a fixed conversion rate of Rs 60 per dollar for its calculations, equates this sum to $22 billion). It aims to build 68 million household latrines. The website of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin stated in late April that 39 million of these had already been built—57 percent of the total target. The ministry of drinking water and sanitation has reported to the Lok Sabha that the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin has consistently exceeded its annual targets for household-latrine construction since it began, and that the rate of their construction is constantly rising. According to the ministry’s numbers, an average of over 34,500 household latrines were built every day in the 2015–2016 financial year, and that figure climbed to over 47,000 in the next one.

The swelling number of latrines is the only metric on which the Swachh Bharat Mission can claim a major success so far. The statistics on the construction boom, however, mask numerous vital issues facing the campaign—including, as I saw in Nageypur, the social exclusion of marginalised groups, and the lack of behavioural change.

Sangita Vyas, a research director with the non-profit Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, has closely studied sanitation-related behaviour in rural India. Vyas, alongside several of her colleagues from the institute, is a co-author of ‘Understanding Open Defecation in Rural India: Untouchability, Pollution and Latrine Pits,’ a paper published earlier this year following a survey of 3,200 households across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu over several years. The paper states that “widespread open defecation in rural India is not attributable to relative material or educational deprivation, but rather to beliefs, values, and norms about purity, pollution, caste and untouchability that cause people to reject affordable latrines.”

A 2014 report by the institute, based on a survey of “sanitation quality, use, access and trends,” found that “over 40% of households with a working latrine have at least one member who defecates in the open,” and that many respondents believed there are benefits to defecating in the open. The report emphasised that latrine construction alone is not enough to change open-defecation patterns, and that “If the government were to build a latrine for every rural household without one, without changing sanitation preferences, most people in our sample states where it is most common would still defecate in the open.”

Over the phone, Vyas reiterated that no sanitation campaign in India can be successful unless it addresses untouchability. Manoj Kumar Jha, the professor at the University of Delhi, told me much the same thing over email. “Any mission which wishes to make impact in terms of cleanliness and sanitation has to have serious engagement with the idea of pollution and purity, which is the hallmark of the Hindu caste structure,” he said. “It requires a huge political will to come out of the Brahminical mindset.”

On its website, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation has published dozens of documents for training and education, including material specifically intended for the Swachh Bharat Mission. None of these mention caste or manual scavenging.

Even setting this aside, the government’s rosy numbers on latrine construction must be seen as inherently suspect. In December 2015, the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, conducted a survey of the implementation of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. The survey looked at 7,500 households across 10 districts in five states—Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar—and compared its findings to the government’s data on them. Roughly a third of the households that the government data claimed had latrines did not actually have them. In numerous cases, the name of a single beneficiary seemed to have been duplicated to produce additional entries in the government’s “achievement list.” A quarter of the new latrines in these areas had been built with no government assistance.

Yamini Aiyar, a senior fellow at the think tank, told me that “we know from our own survey that there are gaps” in the government data. The survey teams, she said, “sometimes could not find habitations” listed in the official records. She added that local administrations have lately been under a lot of pressure to fulfil stipulated targets for latrine construction. The survey had not looked at the campaign’s finances, but, Aiyar cautioned, it is general practice for the government to pass all money released for a welfare programme off as expenditure even if much of it is not really being spent.

As of late April, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation listed 132 districts—around a fifth of all those in the country—as having eradicated open defecation. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin guidelines promise independent annual verification of such claims, but none has been conducted yet. The ministry has also reported that 3,226 public latrines were built between April 2015 and December 2016. There has been no independent check of how many of these are actually functional.

I made numerous phone calls to the office of Parameswaran Iyer, the secretary of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation and the national head of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. I was given an appointment with him in February, but he cancelled it at the last minute. Although I contacted his office again, I was never given another appointment.

THE ENTRANCE TO JAYAPUR is marked by a “yatri pratikshalya,” a visitors’ shelter. It has a metal roof, and six benches—one of them a duplicate of those I saw in Nageypur, down to the slogan and Modi’s name on the backrest. A billboard with Modi’s portrait graces the rear of the structure. Beyond it is a stretch of open ground that hosts the local panchayat office. When I arrived, on a Saturday afternoon, it was closed.

Beside the office, I saw two prefabricated latrine cabins made of fibre-reinforced plastic—the locals called this “fibre”—both emblazoned with the Swachh Bharat Mission logo. One stall, meant for women, had holes punched through its door. Inside, the latrine seat had been broken, as had the sink. The neighbouring stall, reserved for men, had had its door completely destroyed, and was damaged inside too.

There is no transport directly from Varanasi to Jayapur. To get here, I travelled around 20 kilometres west of the city by bus, to Rajtalab, and found a shared auto heading in the village’s direction.

It was past noon as we drove, and along the way I saw children returning home from school. All of them, both boys and girls, wore khaki uniforms. I found this curious, since khaki is not a common colour for school dress. Things are different here, I was told at the house of the Jayapur sarpanch. The sarpanch was away, but his young nephew, Abhay Singh, was happy to give me the lay of the land. Long before Modi adopted the village, he told me, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a host of other Hindutva outfits, and the group that launched Modi into politics—had established a strong presence here. (Later, I saw media reports that said the RSS had adopted the village in 2006.) The RSS has a strong penchant for khaki clothing. Singh told me that almost all the boys in the area were members of shakhas, the RSS’s local branches. Singh, who is in his twenties, had been a shakha member since childhood.

Singh told me that around two-thirds of Jayapur’s residents are Bhumihars—members of a traditionally dominant caste—or Patels. Most of the rest are Dalits—whom the non-Dalits of the village called Harijans, just as in Nageypur.

Also as in Nageypur, each community here lives clustered together. The areas closest to the village entrance were those of the Patels and Bhumihars, and their double-storied brick-and-cement houses suggested considerable affluence when compared to the smaller, shabbier buildings typical in villages such as Nageypur. All of these houses had a latrine, and several had more than one. A resident of the Patel colony showed me a latrine so clean it seemed to never have been used. He told me that he had a second latrine too, and while he used that one, he could afford to keep this one locked. Both latrines, he said, had been built under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

The existence of multiple subsidised latrines for individual households was not the only parallel I found between Jayapur and Nageypur. Here too, the arrival of latrines did not seem to have changed the behaviour of many residents.

Almost all of the latrines I saw were locked. I got a few of these opened by their owners, and found them in pristine condition. Despite none of these latrines showing any signs of use, their owners said they did use them. Several of these villagers, however, complained that their neighbours never used their latrines, and continued to defecate in the open. At one house, I noticed a latrine left unlocked. When I looked inside, I saw that it was being used as a storage space.

Another pattern from Nageypur that repeated itself here was the large gap, in terms of distance and also of quality of life, between the Dalit and non-Dalit parts of the village. To get to Jayapur’s Dalit enclave, I had to walk over a kilometre beyond the rest of the village. The village road was covered in gravel, and was waiting to be asphalted. An election for the Uttar Pradesh state assembly was looming, and the road was being resurfaced—on Modi’s orders, the labourers doing the work claimed. The roadwork stopped abruptly near the Dalit enclave. A resident of the enclave told me that the contractor had said that the order was to only build the road that far.

All the houses in the enclave were small, and many of them were built of mud. Only a handful had latrines. The main source of water here was a well.

Just outside the Dalit enclave, I found two more prefabricated latrine cabins, like those I saw beside the panchayat office. A shopkeeper with a small store nearby told me that the women of the enclave had initially used the cabin meant for them, but had not been able to clean up after relieving themselves since the cabin had no water supply. After the cabin became filthy and was abandoned, he said, someone broke its door. The men’s cabin had also become fetid, and had been locked—the shopkeeper did not know by whom.

According to the Census 2011, only around a third of India’s rural households had a piped supply of water. In urban areas, slightly over two-thirds of households did. As of 2016, the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, a campaign by the ministry of rural development, was still working to ensure that half of all rural households would have water connections by this year.

Later, I spoke with the village sarpanch, Narayan Patel. He complained about the quality of many of the toilets installed in the village. Modi, as part of his adoption of Jayapur under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, appointed Chandrakant Raghunath Patil, an MP from Gujarat, to oversee development work in the village. Patel told me that Patil supervised the installation of over 400 prefabricated “fibre” latrines, which minimise labour as they only require the construction of pits. Patel had not approved this, he said, because these latrines were of poor quality.

When I called Patil to ask about the state of the latrines I saw in Jayapur, he said “Humne toh bohut badiya banakar diya tha. Ab koi jaan bujhkar tod dega toh kya karenge?” (I gave them very well-built latrines. But if someone deliberately breaks them, what can be done?) When I told him about the sarpanch’s complaints, he played them down, and asked me if I had gone to the village to see things for myself. I told him I had. At this, he told me, “Humne toh block-wala banwaya tha. Fibre ka toh diya hi nahi.” (I had built latrines from cement blocks. I never gave them ones made of fibre.) Patil said that he could not remember how many latrines he had gotten built in Jayapur, since it had been two years since the work was done.

I SPENT FIVE DAYS in and around Varanasi in early February. On the days I was not in Nageypur or Jayapur, I roamed the city itself. It was filthy. I saw huge puddles of leaked sewage, streets strewn with garbage, open drains, and, especially after evening fell, men urinating in the open, including along the city’s fabled ghats.

There were few public latrines, and none that were well maintained. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the city’s most famous locations, I found a handful of fetid portable latrine cabins. The floors were wet with urine, the latrine seats were stained with excreta and sometimes cracked. Over three evenings of my stay in the city, the ghat hosted a grand aarti for the Ganges, which attracted enormous crowds. On each of those evenings, the portable latrines were locked.

By outward appearance, the cleanest public facility I saw was a urinal complex at Maldahiya Crossing, near the railway station. Inside, it was passably clean, although it had no running water and a strong stench.

I visited the office of the Varanasi municipal corporation, the administrative authority of the Swachh Bharat Mission in the city, and located the building’s restroom for the public. It was flooded, and the stench was overpowering. Nobody was going inside, and I could not bring myself to either.

The only area that could be described as clean was the campus of Banaras Hindu University, located near the city’s southern edge. Near it, however, was one of the most unsanitary areas I saw anywhere during my reporting. A ten-minute walk out of a gate near the campus’s famous Vishwanath temple was the residential colony of Ravindrapur. In the midst of it, down an alley too narrow to allow two people to pass each other, was a dense cluster of several dozen shacks, most of them too low for a grown person to stand up straight in. Tall walls penned the settlement in on all four sides, allowing very little light in. I would never even have noticed the tiny entry to the alley from the nearby road. The only reason I found the place was because a few Dalit and OBC students of the university brought me here.

The inhabitants of the shacks are from the Musahar caste, one of the lowest in the traditional hierarchy. In recent years, they told me, their neighbours in the surrounding area had raised the walls around the settlement higher and higher. There was no source of water here, and none of the shacks had a latrine. Those I spoke to said they walked to the university to use a public latrine on its premises, and to collect water from its taps. They complained that the police regularly chased them off the campus.

Census numbers from 2011 showed over 26,000 households in urban Varanasi— around 11 percent of the city’s total—without latrines on their premises. Of these, only an eighth had access to public latrines, and the rest defecated in the open.

In Varanasi, as in Ahmedabad, whatever benefits the Swachh Bharat Mission might have brought do not seem to have reached those at the margins of society. And, again as in Ahmedabad, here the campaign has done very little, if anything at all, to address the inhuman working conditions for sanitation workers, and the entrenched discrimination against them.

In comparison to Ahmedabad, Varanasi had few sanitation workers on the streets. In search of them, I found my way to Jawaharnagar, a neighbourhood situated a few hundred metres behind the ghats, and to a settlement of around a hundred dilapidated houses inhabited by Doms, whose assigned occupation under the caste system is sanitation work. The settlement had few latrines, and no hygienic source of water. A wide, uncovered drain flowed along one side of it, and served as a public latrine. The settlement’s residents told me that they get drinking water from a tanker truck, and for all other purposes they had no choice but to use water from the drain.

I met a group of men and teenaged boys all employed as sanitation workers by contractors. Their jobs, they said, entailed cleaning the city’s community latrines early every morning, and also sweeping the streets of human and animal faeces. When any of the city’s numerous stray dogs or cows died, the work of disposing of the carcasses was left to them too. The tools they used were the same ones that I saw sanitary workers use in Ahmedabad.

On top of all this, they were called upon to dive into and unclog any choked sewers. One of the men, Shyamhari Choudhary, described how the only precaution they could take was to rub their bodies with mustard oil before diving in, to keep sewage from sticking to them. If workers ever demanded any equipment, he said, “the contractor will abuse us and fire us immediately.”

The only clear change in the life of the settlement since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, Choudhary told me, was that the incidence of malaria and dengue had gone up here since a trash-processing project was built in the vicinity as part of the campaign. One man agreed to take me to see it, and a young boy decided to come along too.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, settlements of up to 500 households can receive up to Rs 20 lakh from the central government to finance facilities for treating “solid waste”—that is, garbage—including plants that can generate energy from refuse. For large cities, the central government offers to provide 35 percent of the funds to construct such facilities.

The plant stood right at the edge of the Dom settlement. We approached it across a large compound with dry garbage piled to one side and wet sludge dumped on the other. A path in between led to a machine the size of several double-decker buses. One man sat in a chair beside it, and another was working on a computer nearby. Everything stood under the open sky.

I approached one of the seated men, and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. He stood up and told me to follow him, then turned to my companions and told them sternly to stay where they were.

I met the plant supervisor on the other side of the machine. He refused to give me his name, but agreed to describe how the plant worked. The plant receives around 10 tonnes of unsegregated garbage every day, he said. This is segregated, and the organic waste is fed into the machine, which composts it and produces biogas. The biogas is then used to generate electricity—the plant has a generation capacity of 45 kilowatts, the supervisor said—which is supplied to the city. He explained that “inorganic waste has no use for us,” and so is sent away to be dumped.

In January 2016, the central government made it mandatory for power-distribution companies to buy all the power generated by waste-to-energy plants. The government has also set a fixed rate for the purchase of this power. At a conference held this February, Goutham Reddy, the head of a major waste-management firm owned by the Ramky Group, lauded that decision. But he added that there was still no set pricing for the purchase of power generated by various types of waste-to-energy plants—such as “refuse-derived fuel” plants that use all combustible waste as fuel—and that waste-to-energy plants were still often not commercially viable. In his view, Indian solid-waste management facilities were struggling, and the sector needed help to raise more capital and bring in new technology.

In March, the ministry of urban development tweeted that “close to 60 waste to energy plants are under construction across 23 states as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission.” The website of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban does not have any data on the number of such plants in operation or under construction, or on how much of India’s trash is processed to produce energy. I asked the ministry of urban development for this information under the RTI act, but was turned away. The ministry wrote, “You have sought detailed information on various issues and aspects of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) which requires to be compiled from various sources and authorities, including all the state mission director of SBM and municipalities all over the country, which is not desirable under the RTI Act.” The Central Information Commission has in the past ruled that this does not constitute a valid reason for dismissing an RTI request.

However many solid-waste-management facilities India may have, it is safe to say that, at present, they do not have anywhere near the capacity to handle all the garbage the country produces. According to data from the ministry of the environment, in the 2014–2015 financial year India’s towns and cities produced 141,064 tonnes of trash every day, of which 90 percent “is reported to be collected” and just over a quarter is treated in some way. I sent queries to the ministry asking what shares of trash are treated in what ways, and what share ends up in landfills, but was told that it does not “compile the information as required through the RTI application.”

I saw the consequences of the country’s inability to process its trash most starkly in Ahmedabad. On the outskirts of the city, just off a major road heading south, is the Pirana dump, the main disposal site for Ahmedabad’s garbage. From more than a kilometre away, it rears up on the horizon, with the silhouette and dimensions of a mountain. According to information submitted to the Gujarat High Court, the dump site is spread over 84 hectares, of which at least 65 hectares have already been covered in trash—an area the size of roughly a hundred football pitches. Official figures from 2011 put the quantity of trash produced by Ahmedabad’s populace each day at 2,300 tonnes, of which only 400 tonnes were separated out and composted.

Right at the foot of the mountain of garbage is the Muslim ghetto of Bombay Hotel. The ghetto includes the settlement of Citizen Nagar, home to people permanently displaced by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. On paper, Citizen Nagar simply does not exist. The state government refuses to recognise the existence of settlements of pogrom survivors, and insists that all of them have returned to their original homes.

The sanitation infrastructure at Bombay Hotel was no better than that at Millat Nagar. There is no water connection, and residents collect drinking water from a tanker. There are no sewage lines, and only a small number of insanitary latrines.

In one of the 40 one-room homes that make up Citizen Nagar, I met an elderly man named Mohammed Nizamuddin. The room had space for a bed, a bench, and little more, and Nizamuddin shared it with his wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. They had no latrine, and Nizamuddin said the family defecated on the dump. The air was filled with the smell of rotting garbage. Nearby, there were numerous large plants, several of them producing chemicals. Wafts of noxious fumes floated through. Nizamuddin’s seven-year-old granddaughter, Nikhat Bano, showed me some grainy red rashes on her face, and I was told that her parents had similar rashes too. Nizamuddin said that a doctor had told them that this was the consequence of chemical pollution. If he could have left this place, he said, he would have years ago, but he had nowhere else to go.

When I described what I saw at Bombay Hotel to Poonamchand Parmar, the head of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban in Gujarat, he told me the state government is planning to build solid-waste treatment plants that would improve conditions. His staff later gave me a data sheet which stated that Gujarat’s cities and towns generate 10,500 tonnes of trash each day. The document also stated that only seven cities or towns disposed of their trash in sanitary dump sites. It added that five major waste-to-energy projects in the state were at various stages of preparation. At present, according to this document, Gujarat does not have a single waste-to-energy plant.

After my short tour of the composting plant in Varanasi, I did not find my companions from the Dom settlement in the plant compound. I saw them back where we had first met, and went up to say thank you. Before I could speak, Ramani told me, “You saw what happened there! People consider us untouchable. This is our home, our basti, but we cannot enter that gate.”

The boy who had accompanied us said he had been told, “Tum log yahan mat aana” (You people should not come here).

One of the things that struck me most about Varanasi as I roamed the city was the absence of any significant work on the city’s sewage system. Nowhere in Varanasi—or anywhere else—did I see or even hear of sewage lines being laid or repaired.

So far as the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban is concerned, addressing this lacuna is not a priority. The campaign’s guidelines show no plans at all to improve sewage collection or treatment. Figures from the ministry of the environment show, that as of March 2015, India’s existing sewage treatment plants were capable of processing only 37 percent of the sewage generated by all the country’s cities and towns.

In March, during a sitting of the Lok Sabha, a parliamentarian asked Ramesh Jigajinagi, a minister of state for drinking water and sanitation, if the central government had a national plan for “disposal of human waste and waste water from new toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission.” In response, Jigajinagi pointed to the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management, which was released by the ministry of urban development just this February, almost two and a half years after the Swachh Bharat Mission was inaugurated. This, however, is little more than a policy document that, in its own words, is only meant to set “context, priorities and direction for states and cities.” It sets no targets or timeline, and has no plan on how to fund relevant work. If anything, the document sounds a warning regarding the Swachh Bharat Mission’s complete lack of action on improving sewage management. It states:

Currently on-site pit latrines and septic tanks account for a substantial proportion of toilets in urban India—over 47% of urban Indian households depend on onsite facilities (Census 2011) and this proportion is increasing. Further, as urban households without toilets obtain facilities over the next few years under SBM, it is likely that many will acquire on-site arrangements like pit latrines and septic tanks in cities at locations where sewerage systems are not available. Thus, while the containment of human waste will be largely achieved under SBM, its treatment still poses a huge challenge.

IF THE GOVERNMENT’S ORIGINAL estimates prove true, the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban will come to cost Rs 62,000 crore—28 percent of the entire spending on the Swachh Bharat Mission. The central government has promised to put in Rs 14,600 crore from its budget, and the states an additional Rs 4,900 crore from theirs. The remaining funds, the campaign’s guidelines say, have to be generated through other means, including investments from the campaign’s beneficiaries, partnerships with private firms, donations from individuals and corporations, borrowing on the open market and revenues gathered from some of the campaign’s projects, as well as assistance from multilateral agencies such as international development banks.

For instance, each urban household without a latrine is to receive only Rs 4,000 to subsidise one, and is expected to meet all costs above that limit on its own. For shared latrines built for and run by individual communities—say, particular settlements—government funding is to cover only 40 percent of all costs. Public latrines were originally to be funded entirely through such means as corporate donations, pay-and-use revenue models and “land leveraging”—for instance, hiring out space for advertising. After an amendment to the guidelines last year, the government now offers to cover 40 percent of the costs for building public latrines too.

The Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin is also meant to draw on a complex mixture of budget funds from the central and state governments, contributions from beneficiaries and private partners, donations from both individuals and organisations, and international assistance.

The central government has made several formal provisions to raise money for the Swachh Bharat Mission. To attract donations, it has set up the Swachh Bharat Kosh, a fund administered by an autonomous governing council headed by the secretary of the department of expenditure, which falls under the ministry of finance. By law, Indian corporations must allocate 2 percent of their profits to charity—“corporate social responsibility,” or CSR. These funds are typically not exempt from taxation, but, under rules introduced in February 2015, all CSR contributions to the Swachh Bharat Kosh are. In addition, since November 2015 the government has imposed the Swachh Bharat cess, a countrywide levy of 0.5 percent on all taxable services.

In response to an RTI request, the department of expenditure informed me that the Swachh Bharat Kosh had received Rs 471.5 crore, until mid February. The large majority of this had come from private corporations and public-sector undertakings—that is, state-owned enterprises—but with contributions from private individuals too. Under the fund’s guidelines, these donations should be spent on building new latrines, repairing defunct ones, installing water connections for constructed latrines, and on projects for trash and sewage management. Through the end of January, the department stated, the Swachh Bharat Kosh had spent Rs 66.3 crore—only 14 percent of what it had received. The RTI response showed that all of this money had gone to the construction of new latrines, and no money had yet been spent on repairing or improving existing latrines or on trash or sewage management.

The ministry of drinking water and sanitation has reported in parliament that, until this January, the Swachh Bharat cess raised Rs 13,000 crore. The ministry, replying to my RTI request, stated that Rs 10,000 crore of this was allocated to it in the 2016–2017 financial year, and Rs 2,400 crore in the previous one. The same amount of cess funds, it continued, had been released to the states, but, since these are released as part of general disbursals under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, it has no specific data on how they have been spent.

The funding and spending models of both the rural and the urban components of the Swachh Bharat Mission are designed to have built-in mechanisms for the verification of on-the-ground results. As things currently stand, however, these do not appear to be working as intended.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban’s guidelines, 60 percent of all funding is reserved for project expenditure, to fund such things as latrines and trash-management facilities. Another 20 percent is to be spent on awareness work, administration and research. The remaining 20 percent is meant to be used as reward money, to be released to individual municipal corporations that show good results from the use of earlier funds. The guidelines promise that the release of these funds will be based on third-party evaluation of results conducted by “independent project review and monitoring agencies.”

It is not clear what agencies are currently doing these evaluations. I submitted an RTI request to the ministry of urban development asking for the names of independent evaluation agencies it had engaged, the status of their work and the money spent on them. In March, the ministry replied that it had “no such information.”

The protocols of the ministry of urban development state that once an urban authority declares its jurisdiction free of open defecation, “a third party verification process (swachh certification) is to be adopted for the final ODF certification. Subsequently, recertification of ODF will happen at fixed intervals (every six months) so as to ensure that there is no slippage of the ODF status.” In February, Rao Inderjit Singh, a minister of state for urban development, reported in parliament that 564 statutory towns across the country had declared themselves free of open defecation, and that these declarations had been certified by a third party in 481 cases. These included the declarations by all of Gujarat’s cities and towns—including Ahmedabad. The fact that the ministry’s verification mechanisms confirmed what was clearly a premature declaration of an end to open defecation in the city raises doubts as to whether these mechanisms are sufficiently rigorous.

In 2016, the Quality Council of India, an autonomous body established by the government, conducted an assessment of sanitation and cleanliness in Indian cities. The QCI published its results as the Swachh Survekshan 2016, which it described as “a survey commissioned by the Ministry of Urban Development—the first for Swachh Bharat Mission.” Whether this agency qualifies as an independent evaluator is debatable. The QCI’s board is comprised in large part of government bureaucrats, and, as its website makes clear, is chaired by a nominee of the prime minister. The Swachh Survekshan is meant to be an annual exercise. For 2016, the QCI surveyed and ranked 73 cities. This year, it promises to rank 500.

The guidelines of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin did not originally provide for any result-based funding. This changed, however, in March 2016, when the government signed an agreement with the World Bank to create the Swachh Bharat Mission Support Operation. (Parameswaran Iyer, who currently heads the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, formerly worked for the World Bank, and was part of its negotiating team for the agreement.) Under this, the World Bank has committed to providing a loan of $1.5 billion, the vast majority of which is meant to be disbursed to individual rural areas as reward for achieving and sustaining defined standards. The loan earmarks $25 million for the government to create a project-management unit to administer the funding, and $147.5 million for this unit to hire an independent agency that will carry out a National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey, meant to evaluate on-the-ground performance.

Under the agreement, the first such survey, which would act as a baseline for all future evaluation, was to have been started by June 2016. This was to be completed in 20 weeks, and the first tranche of loan funding was to be released between July and September—an annual window stipulated by the World Bank.

A second survey a year later would trigger more funding, including reward money for rural areas that had shown improvements since the first one. This cycle was then to be repeated every year.

To date, the government has not hired an independent agency to conduct the survey. The ministry of drinking water and sanitation invited interested agencies to approach it in May 2016, and shortlisted six of them, but that is as far as the process has come. The World Bank has not released a single tranche of loan funding.

The National Sample Survey Office conducts an annual countrywide survey of sanitation for the ministry of drinking water and sanitation. This body, however, falls under the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, and so is not a fully independent evaluator.

If the ministry of drinking water and sanitation were to hire an independent evaluator this May, the first 20-week survey promised under the agreement with the World Bank could be completed in September. That could allow for the release of the first tranche of funding that month. The first release of reward funds for rural areas could then occur in the July-to-September window next year. That would allow a year for these funds to be put to use before the Swachh Bharat Mission’s deadline, in October 2019. Any further delay by the ministry, however, could delay the release of the first tranche of funding by another year, which could mean that the first reward funds will reach rural areas just months before the campaign expires.

I wrote to the World Bank with questions on the status of the Swachh Bharat Mission Support Operation. In mid April, a World Bank spokesperson forwarded me a message stating that once the results of the independent survey are received, “the World Bank will move speedily to release the first tranche of loan proceeds.”

Meanwhile, the agreement stipulates that the Indian government must pay a “commitment charge” of 0.25 percent per annum on un-withdrawn loan funds, which “shall accrue from a date sixty days after the date of the Loan Agreement to the respective dates on which amounts are withdrawn by the Borrower from the Loan Account or cancelled.” Since the agreement was signed last March, this means the Indian government already owes the World Bank some $3.75 million, or roughly Rs 24 crore, even though it has not put the loan money to use.

A World Bank spokesperson told me that the organisation has not received this charge from the government. I sent an RTI request to the ministry of drinking water and sanitation asking if the government had paid any commitment charge to date, and got a reply that restated the relevant conditions of the loan but said nothing else.

In a status report on the Swachh Bharat Mission Support Operation released in February, the World Bank rated the “overall implementation progress” of the programme as “moderately unsatisfactory.”
This is not the only front on which the World Bank’s efforts have failed to yield results. The organisation’s November 2015 report on the prospective environmental and social impact of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin said that the campaign “in principle addresses the risk of social exclusion”—the campaign’s guidelines promise periodic “social audits”—but called for strong monitoring systems “to track inclusion indicators.” When it came to potential environmental effects, the report again said that the campaign was sound in principle, but noted that the “challenge is implementation of the environment related policies.” In reply to my RTI query about environmental assessments, the ministry of drinking water and sanitation replied, “No studies on the environmental impact have been conducted by this Ministry.” As for social audits, it only said, “This Ministry has proposed a National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey to be carried out during the year 2017.”

The ministry of urban development, in response to RTI requests regarding studies of the social and environmental aspects of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, replied that it too had not conducted any social audits or environmental-impact assessments.

As of late April, the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin listed three states—Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Kerala—as free of open defecation. The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban listed Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh as being free of open defecation in all urban areas. As part of the Swachh Bharat Mission’s other sub-missions, the ministry of human resource development claims to have ensured that every public school in India has a latrine; the ministry of women and child development, in figures reported in parliament in February, claimed that almost two-thirds of anganwadi centres across the country now have latrines; and the ministry of drinking water and sanitation claimed in an RTI reply that, as of mid March, over 2 million household latrines have been built since the start of the campaign under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana.

Like the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban and the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, none of these sub-missions have published independent verification of their claimed results.

Meanwhile, new reports continue to cast doubt on many of the government’s claims of success. In April, the Hindustan Times reported on the existence of open defecation, dry latrines and manual scavengers in several areas of Uttarakhand, which the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin claims has 100-percent coverage of sanitary latrines. When the journalist who wrote the piece described what she had seen to government officials, many of them continued to claim that such things no longer exist in the state.

OF ALL THE PUBLIC LATRINES I visited, one of the best was in Bhikaji Cama Place, a busy commercial area in south Delhi. It consisted of a series of “Namma” cabins—specially designed prefabricated units, with water-saving features and solar-powered lights—lined up next to each other near a taxi stand. A large tank perched above the cabins supplied running water, and all the cabins had working taps. There were no unpleasant smells. The Swachh Bharat Mission logo was displayed prominently on one wall, next to signage announcing that the latrine had been funded by NBCC (India) Limited, a major state-owned enterprise.

Yet even here, where it was clear that considerable planning and money had gone into the latrine, the conditions for sanitation workers left much to be desired. Kishan Chand, a short and quiet 65-year-old, told me he received Rs 7,500 per month to clean the place. He was employed by the OP Jindal Group, as part of its CSR work, and wore a fluorescent jacket with the conglomerate’s logo on it. I visited the latrine first in September and again in March, and both times found Chand at work without gloves, a mask, or other protective equipment. For cleaning gear, all he had was a broom and some brushes. He said he did not receive detergent or disinfectant for the job.

He described how he had to get down on his knees and brush the squat-latrine seats clean after every time that someone defecated. The cabins did not have flushing mechanisms—only a tap and a plastic mug. Most people do not flush after themselves, Chand said. “Few do, but not properly, like they would do in their homes.”

The latrine at Bhikaji Cama Place falls within the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which runs eight of the national capital’s 11 districts. Under its policies, the responsibility for maintaining public latrines is given to contractors. At the latrine in Bhikaji Cama Place, this system seemed to be working, though clearly it did not provide safety or dignity for the sanitation worker. Elsewhere, it had failed completely.

In October, I visited two more latrines with Namma cabins in the capital—one at Shastri Bhawan, an area dense with government offices and located just a few hundred metres from the parliament building, and the other at Preet Vihar, a residential area in east Delhi. Both were in terrible condition. The cabins were filthy, with toilet seats stained with faeces and puddles of urine on the floor. Lights and taps inside the cabins had been ripped out. I did not find any sanitation workers responsible for either site.

Besides these, I visited roughly 20 other latrines in the city between September and March. These were all of a different build, with sturdy cement walls enclosing the entire complex and carrying advertising on their outsides. Besides one latrine, near the Akshardham metro station, all of them were in useable condition. In all of them, the conditions faced by sanitation workers were no better than those I saw at the Namma latrines in Bhikaji Cama Place, and frequently they were worse.

A sanitation worker at a public latrine near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which attracts enormous crowds of people seeking medical attention, told me that the latrine’s water connection had been broken for over a month. He had complained to the contractors responsible for the site, but there had been no effort yet to fix the problem. To keep the latrine clean, the sanitation worker had to continually fetch water from a public tap across a nearby road.

At another public latrine in Bhikaji Cama Place, not far from the one with Namma cabins, a sanitation worker told me that the roof leaked when it rained, and that the latrine had no electricity. Again, his complaints to the contractor had been ignored.

The public latrine at Akshardham, which I visited in December, had no running water, filthy toilet seats, and no sanitation worker to be found. The stench inside was overpowering.

In January, the Swaraj India party published allegations that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi had used only 1 percent of the funds it received under the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban in the preceding two years. Officials of the MCD denied the party’s claims.

Even in the cleanest latrines I saw in Delhi—which were by far the best I saw anywhere in the country—I never saw sanitation workers with anything other than the most basic equipment. This meant that they often had to resort to cleaning the latrines with their bare hands, as they have been doing for years and years. On this front, the Swachh Bharat Mission had brought no improvement. Though politicians, including Modi, have made much of the campaign’s aim to end manual scavenging, nowhere in its documents is there any mention of the hazards of sanitation work or the need for safety equipment, or of arming sanitation workers with mechanised equipment to clean latrines and dispose of faeces.

Of the ten sanitation workers I interviewed in Delhi, nine were Dalits, and one was from the Other Backward Classes.

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and an advisor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, pointed this out to me over the phone in April. In 2014, soon after Modi inaugurated the Swachh Bharat Mission, Prasad criticised the presentation and symbology of the campaign when he appeared on a panel on Rajya Sabha TV. Instead of promoting the mechanisation of faecal disposal, Prasad had said, Modi picked up a broom, making this crude tool the Swachh Bharat Mission’s ultimate symbol of sanitation. Over the phone, Prasad said that Modi should have used modern tools—things such as suction pumps and high-pressure hoses. The prime minister, he continued, is “taking India to some antiquity. He is more past-centric than forward-looking.”

Prasad also criticised Modi’s choice of location for the launch of the campaign. By starting it in a Dalit settlement, he said, Modi had, knowingly or unknowingly, reinforced the notion that people from the oppressed castes are unclean. “A man with good intent,” he continued, should have started the campaign in some place with affluent, dominant-caste residents “who only create dirt and never clean” after themselves.

Bezwada Wilson, who has received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work with the Safai Karmachari Andolan, also criticised the Swachh Bharat Mission’s lack of attention to the conditions of sanitary workers. “Why does this government and Modi not make investments in cleaning technology?” he asked. Even with the campaign underway, he said, manual scavengers were still not being given crucial equipment such as suction pumps to aid in their work. He took issue with the way the campaign has been promoted too. Myriad politicians and celebrities had posed for photographs wielding brooms, he said, but he had yet to see any of them photographed cleaning a latrine. With the campaign proceeding as it is, he told me, he feared that it would simply create more unsanitary latrines that will require more manual scavengers to clean them.

Towards the end of last year, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi began inviting new tenders for the maintenance of some of its public latrines. One tender offer by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, which forms part of the MCD, stipulated that the bidder could charge Rs 5 for each use of a latrine, and hire out latrine walls for advertising. The document also mandated that latrines were to be washed every day with disinfectant, and set out numerous other conditions. It did not, however, set down any requirements on working conditions or equipment for sanitation workers. Instead, it stated that “any person employed by any firm shall remain employee of the firm. NDMC shall have no concern with them in any manner.”

The sanitation workers I met in Delhi all earned between Rs 7,000 and Rs 12,000 a month, depending on the number of hours they worked and the contractor they were paid by. Several said they put in night shifts to earn a little more. Chand, at Bhikaji Cama Place, told me his employer initially paid him Rs 8,500, for working eight-hour shifts seven days a week, but his pay was suddenly cut to Rs 7,500 after a few months on the job. “When I objected they said I can leave the job,” he said.

I asked him why, at his age, he worked for such meagre pay in such hazardous conditions. He replied, “Bhangi hain sahab. Aur kya karenge?” (I am a Bhangi, sir. What else will I do?)

In February, I called up Sandeep Mishra, a special secretary with Delhi’s department of urban development and the mission director for the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban in the city. I had questions about the campaign’s progress under his watch, and asked that we meet for an interview. Mishra said he was busy through the following day, and could not accommodate me. I asked if we could meet on some later day. Mishra replied, “Kuch khas ho nahi raha hai Delhi mein. Bahut encouraging nahi hai.” (There is nothing remarkable happening in Delhi. It’s not very encouraging.) After a pause, he added, “Toh usme kuch bulane ka bhi koi fayeda nahi hai” (So there is no point in meeting).

ON 2 OCTOBER 2014, just months into his job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history. Not by coincidence, this was the very date of the birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi. Modi, in dramatic style, appeared before a battery of cameras to sweep the courtyard of a police station in a Dalit residential colony in central Delhi. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his one-hundred-and-fiftieth birth anniversary in 2019,” he said, promising to transform sanitation and waste-management in the country by that day.

Since the launch, Modi has put enormous effort into making the Swachh Bharat Mission a flagship programme of his rule. He spoke of it in his annual Independence Day speeches, televised live from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, and at campaign rallies in election-bound states. He roped in every layer of India’s vast government—from the cabinet, through the ministries and state and district administrations, down all the way to individual urban authorities and village panchayats. He also imposed a cess of 0.5 percent on all taxable services to help raise money for the campaign. Late last year, after Modi demonetised the country’s entire supply of high-value currency notes, the replacement notes, which millions were desperately queuing for, appeared carrying the Swachh Bharat Mission logo—Gandhi’s signature round glasses. It was a move indicative of the government’s incredible zeal for drawing attention to the campaign.

On the second anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission came the proclamation of one of its most touted successes. To mark Gandhi’s birth and the campaign’s founding in 2016, some of the top leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gathered at Porbandar—Gandhi’s birthplace on the Gujarat coast. There, they declared that Gujarat, Modi’s home state, had eradicated open defecation in all urban areas. The minister for urban development, M Venkaiah Naidu, beamed in via live video to hail this “interim gift” to Gandhi, which was to set the stage for the “final gift” in 2019.

One afternoon this January, I took a 40-minute bus ride south-east from the centre of Ahmedabad to Maninagar, an area that thrice elected Modi as its MLA over his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister. I walked past prosperous shops and offices in the area’s main bazaar, then down a road with high-rise apartments on one side and a slum on the other, and, after about 20 minutes, arrived at Millat Nagar, a Dalit and Muslim ghetto. The cramped, garbage-strewn lanes were lined with a few basic businesses—television-repair kiosks, butcher shops, simple eateries—and clusters of young men loitered everywhere. Following my guide, a social activist and local resident named Shakil Ahmad, I jostled my way through the crowds and out to some open ground at the far side of the settlement.

Before us was a large reservoir, called Chandola Lake, with slums dotted along its rim. Where we stood, and all across the roughly ten-metre-wide bank leading to the water, the ground was littered with human faeces. Flies buzzed all around. A small boy squatted down in plain sight to defecate.

Ahmad told me that most of the people living on this side of the lake were Muslims, and most of those on the other Dalits. Millat Nagar, he said, had no sewers or municipal piped water. Its people depended on groundwater, and some homes had single-pit latrines—essentially, crude pits. He said that a large share of Dalits and Muslims in Ahmedabad lived in similar ghettos, under similar conditions.

A mobile latrine—a small van with two cabins perched on its back—stood nearby, surrounded by faeces. An emaciated young man in an orange vest with reflective stripes stood guard beside it. I asked why he had not told the boy to use the mobile latrine. Its container was full, he said, and needed to be emptied, but to do that he had to wait for his boss, a field supervisor, to arrive and authorise it.

Ahmed and I later drove all the way around the lake on his motorcycle, taking whatever roads and lanes kept us closest to its rim. We passed through slum after slum, and wherever the lake peeked out from between the shacks and crude houses I saw its banks littered with trash and excreta. On two occasions, I spotted children defecating in the open. Othen than the mobile latrine stationed behind Millat Nagar, we did not find a single public sanitary facility, whether mobile or otherwise, anywhere along the way.

The man beside the mobile latrine introduced himself as Pankaj Kumar. He said he was a Dalit, from the east of the state, working for a firm contracted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. Besides maintaining the latrine, his job was to drive it to specified areas every day, keeping it parked for a few hours at each one, over a 12-hour shift. He had no gloves, mask, or any other cleaning or safety equipment. To clean the latrine and empty out its container, he had to use his bare hands.

AS OF 2011, ACCORDING TO INDIA’S LATEST CENSUS, 53.1 percent of the country’s 246.7 million households had no latrine on their premises. Of these, a small share used public latrines, and the vast majority—half of all the households in the country—practised open defecation.

The United Nations, in a report on water access and sanitation in India released in 2015, said that 564 million of the country’s people still defecated in the open. They accounted for nearly half of the country’s population, and for over half of the 1.1 billion people across the world who practised open defecation. The UN estimated that 65,000 tonnes of uncovered, untreated faeces—equal to the weight of around 180 Airbus A380s—were being introduced into the environment in India every single day.

The Swachh Bharat Mission makes it a major objective to completely eliminate open defecation in India. This is an enormous goal, and an admirable one, but the mission does not stop there. To succeed, it must, by its deadline in 2019, make rapid progress in fighting some of India’s most stubborn and appalling practices of hygiene and sanitation. Besides ending open defecation, it has pledged to deliver door-to-door collection of all of the country’s garbage, the processing of all inorganic trash to generate energy, giant strides in the sanitary treatment of sewage, and a mass transformation in popular belief and behaviour. The campaign also aims to finally deliver on a promise that has been made and broken many times before: to completely end the barbarity of “manual scavenging.” This is a euphemism for the disposal of excrement by hand that, for centuries, has been the exclusive lot of people at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy. The employment of manual scavengers, and the construction of latrines that rely on their services, is prohibited by Indian law.

How the mission performs on this last promise will be a major indicator of how it performs on an array of its other goals. The first step in eliminating open defecation is to make sure that people have latrines to use in the first place—and on this the mission is making significant headway. To end manual scavenging, these latrines must be of the kinds that eliminate the handling of fresh excreta, and must be used as per design. But, as the mobile latrine surrounded by faeces near Millat Nagar showed, having infrastructure alone is not enough. Maintaining sanitary facilities also requires systems to handle the sewage they capture—and on this, the Swachh Bharat Mission raises questions for which the government does not appear to have adequate answers. Manual scavenging exists in the yawning gap between the amount of excreta produced by India’s enormous population and the country’s existing capacity for processing it sanitarily. If that gap is not closed, especially as the government strives to get more than half a billion people who did not previously use latrines to start using them, it will perpetuate the same old practices.

There is also another factor in getting all of India’s households and communities to use latrines, and to take collective responsibility for their upkeep. Many of the current practices responsible for the abysmal state of sanitation in the country are rooted in traditional notions of purity and hygiene—often the same ones that normalise the allocation of sanitation work to the oppressed castes. Transforming sanitation in India will require a large-scale change in these beliefs, yet here again the Swachh Bharat Mission is faltering.

Last month marked two and a half years since the Swachh Bharat Mission began, bringing it halfway to its deadline. In anticipation of that milestone, I began to study the campaign, to understand how it has performed so far and whether it is on course to meet its targets. This meant looking beyond the giant billboards, grand official pronouncements and celebrity photo ops that have generated a great deal of attention for the campaign so far, and asking questions about its design, finances and performance. I read reports, interviewed experts and filed a barrage of queries with government offices under the Right to Information Act. To see what impact the campaign was having on the ground, I also travelled through Ahmedabad, Varanasi and Delhi, as well as the villages of Nageypur and Jayapur, both on the outskirts of Varanasi.

Modi, in his speeches and on his social-media feeds, has trumpeted the Swachh Bharat Mission to the point that it is inextricably associated with him. Much of the promotional material associated with the scheme has bolstered this connection too, aggressively deploying the prime minister’s image alongside iconography invoking Gandhi.

All the places I went on my reporting are closely tied to Modi. Ahmedabad is the largest and most prosperous city in Gujarat, the state he ruled for 13 years and which his party rules to this day. Delhi is the seat of his current government, and for a decade now the BJP has run the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the largest of the national capital’s three municipal authorities. Varanasi is Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency. Nageypur and Jayapur have been “adopted” by him under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, which urges members of parliament to promote development initiatives in villages of their selection. In these places more than anywhere else, the prime minister and his government have a massive incentive to make the campaign succeed. The status of the Swachh Bharat Mission in them offers an indication—likely a positively biased one—of its overall progress elsewhere.

Most of what I saw, heard and read was not encouraging. India is in the midst of a latrine-construction spree. In April, official numbers from the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin and the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban—respectively, the campaign’s rural and urban components—said that over 42.6 million latrines have already been built. (The Swachh Bharat Mission also has three other, relatively small, “sub-missions”: one to ensure that there are latrines in all of the country’s public schools, a second to ensure that there are latrines in all of its anganwadi centres, and a third to build latrines as part of other government programmes, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana.) But there are indications that even those with access to new latrines do not always use them, that latrines are being denied to particular marginalised groups, and that not enough is being done to end manual scavenging. There are also concerns that the mechanisms for verifying the productive use of funds under the campaign are not sufficiently strong. Evidence on the ground calls into question many of the government’s claims of success so far, pointing to the unreliability of data being produced by the authorities. The government and the World Bank have signed an agreement for a loan of $1.5 billion to support the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin, but the release of this funding has been stalled for over half a year due to the government’s delay in commissioning a promised independent verification of official data on the present state of sanitation in rural India.

That verification is meant to create a trustworthy baseline against which to measure the performance of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin. As it is designed, this campaign, like the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, is meant to have its progress regularly verified through independent evaluation. As I discovered, these measures are not functioning as they should. The government’s behavior suggests a disturbing resistance to transparency and accountability—a possibility reinforced by the rejection of many of my RTI requests on thin procedural grounds. As my reporting proceeded, I became increasingly convinced that the government’s data and claims on the Swachh Bharat Mission should be met with scepticism until they are checked by credible non-government agencies, and until their findings are released for public scrutiny.

India’s crisis of sanitation has huge costs. The UN estimates that around 117,000 of the deaths of Indian children under the age of five in 2015 were caused by diarrhoea, the incidence of which correlates closely with the quality of sanitation in an area. This means that 10 percent of all deaths under the age of five in the country are due to the disease—among the highest proportions of anywhere in the world. Diarrhoea and other diseases tied to poor sanitation can have debilitating long-term effects, such as malnutrition and stunting. They also have costs in terms of decreased productivity, expenditure on treatment and premature deaths. A 2015 report on the global costs of poor sanitation, co-authored by the charity WaterAid, valued the loss to India’s economy at $106 billion per year, or over 5 percent of its gross domestic product.

Against that, the Rs 2.23 lakh crore that the Swachh Bharat Mission is estimated to cost—$36.3 billion, by the exchange rate at the time the campaign began—seems a prudent investment. But as Manoj Kumar Jha, the head of the department of social work at the University of Delhi, told me, “Modi-ji has the art and ability of creating an event which is seen 24-7 across TV channels,” and the Swachh Bharat Mission “fits well in his scheme of lots of sound but low substance.” If Jha is right, much of the money being spent for the campaign is going down the drain.

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Sagar is a web reporter at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

23 thoughts on “Down the Drain”

the writer should have also included how many of these slum dwellings had satellite dishes poking out of their roofs. almost all, if i would guess.

sanitation has to become a priority with everyone. you can’t expect the government to hand you everything.

Excellent combination of research, commitment, concern and writing skills. More power to such journalists!!

Sir I’m resident of sector A pocket A vasant kunj delhi there is no proper public toilet i complaint many times .no help from govt.

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