On Saturday, Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi passed a short-lived order halting the distribution of free rice to poor people until their villages became cleaner. Bedi said that the distribution of grain “shall be conditional to the certification of the village being open defecation free and free of strewn garbage and plastics” and that settlements would have to submit a certificate to this effect.

In a letter to Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy, Bedi said the step was being taken to “inculcate a sense of responsibility amongst the local community”. She gave villages until May 31 to clean up their act.

The announcement met with such harsh criticism that Bedi was compelled to withdraw the order a few hours later.

Despite her hasty retreat, Bedi’s strategy wasn’t unusual. Coercive tactics against people practising open defecation have been employed by government officials in several states ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party lauched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Campaign soon after coming to power in 2014.

Tall targets, hasty execution

The ambitious Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aimed to make India open-defecation free by October 2, 2019. This goal was never going to be easy: according to World Bank data, 66% of Indians practiced open defecation in 2000. By 2015, that number had dropped, but at 40% was still high. The government’s own Swacchata Status Report of 2015 said that 52.1% of India’s rural population still defecates in the open.

In the years since, the government has repeatedly claimed to be on target, as it has constantly published figures about the number of toilets it has built.

However, the government has failed to satisfactorily explain if merely providing access to toilets has actually translated into active use and how it is verifying the claims of villages that declare themselves open-defecation free. In August, Rural Development Minister Narendra Singh Tomar admitted in the Lok Sabha that out of 204,245 villages declared open-defecation free, the claims of only 51.6% had been verified.

Despite this, officials across the country have been put under pressure to meet toilet-building targets. This numbers-driven approach has frequently resulted in government authorities using a mix of coercion, shaming and obfuscation to prove their performance. Kiran Bedi wasn’t the first official to threaten to block access to rations to villagers who were not meeting goals under Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. A 2017 investigation by Down To Earth highlighted a slew of intimidation tactics used by enforcement officers to end open defecation, including shaming those found relieving themselves outdoors and denying them free rations under the Public Distribution System.

Earlier this month, Patrika reported that 24 villagers in Betul, Madhya Pradesh,
had been denied food rations because they did not have toilets in their homes. In the Amla Janpad block of the same district, authorities imposed fines on families found defecating in the open. In one instance, a family had been fined a reported Rs 75,000 – Rs 250 per day per member.

In September, the Indian Express reported that in Jhalawar and Rajsamand districts of Rajasthan, rations to some families had been stopped to pressure them into building toilets. The report also mentioned instances of women being photographed while defecating in the open and arrests being made for open defecation. Villagers claimed that they had been denied work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme for failing to build toilets at home.

The same month, Times Now reported that in Uttar Pradesh, the government had cut off power supplies in villages that practiced open defecation and had threatened to withdraw access to rations and subsidies.

In January 2017, reports said that the Sheopur district administration was giving rations to Below Poverty Line families only after they produced a certificate showing they had toilets at home. In the same state the previous year, minister Gopal Bhargava said that people found defecating in the open would stand to lose their ration cards.

The same tactic was used in Chhatisgarh in 2016, The Wire reported.

Several states have also passed laws barring those who do not have toilets from standing for panchayat elections.

Shame and surveillance are other tactics that local authorities have tried to use to end open defecation. In October 2016, some districts in Haryana tried to use low-flying drones to identify people defecating in the open – the plan was reportedly dropped later. In October 2017, Maharashtra, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a plan to shame people into using toilets by blowing a whistle every time someone was found defecating in the open.

What the law says

The attempt to make access to food assured under government schemes contingent on other factors is not just a human rights concern but also a legal one. The National Food Security Act, 2013, guarantees the rights of eligible families to receive subsidised food grains up to a certain limit from the government.

The Act aims to provide subsidised food to up to 75% families in rural areas and 50% in urban areas. The legislation lists the obligations of the Centre, state government and local authorities in ensuring the proper implementation of the Act. It does not leave room for individual discretion in the disbursal of food grains – it is not for a chief minister, a lieutenant governor or any state representative to strip the right from a family that is otherwise eligible for subsidised food from the country’s government.

Crucially, the Act lists grievance redressal mechanisms in cases where beneficiaries do not receive their entitlement. It says:

  “In case of non-supply of the entitled quantities of foodgrains or meals to entitled persons under Chapter II, such persons shall be entitled to receive such food security allowance from the concerned State Government to be paid to each person, within such time and manner as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”    

Iron-fisted approach

Kiran Bedi’s order and the actions of officials in other states fly in the face of a advisory issued in July by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in July asking state government officials not to use coercive tactics while promoting sanitation.

This iron-fisted approach came under the radar of the United Nations, when its Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation visited India in October-November 2017 to examine the Swacch Bharat mission. Leo Heller cautioned that human rights must not be neglected in the race to declare India open-defecation free. In his report, Heller said:

  “...likely as an unintended consequence of the desire to obtain rewards, some aggressive and abusive practices seem to have emerged. In the interest of achieving the targets and obtaining the corresponding rewards, I have received several testimonies that people are being coerced – sometimes through public authorities – to, on the one hand, quickly construct toilets and, on the other, stop practising open defecation. For instance, individuals could have their ration cards revoked, which directly impacts on their right to food. Households with overdue energy bills, hitherto tolerated by the authorities, could have their service cut off. In others cases, individuals defecating in the open are apparently being shamed, harassed or otherwise penalised.”  

Researchers have unanimously concluded that open defecation is a not just a consequence of lack of infrastructure but also behaviour – many people have been used to relieving themselves in the open over decades and are not used to toilets. This thrust towards behavioural change is a component of the Swachh Bharat campaign as well. Researchers have noted that this approach would be more conducive to achieving sanitation than the coercive tactics like Bedi’s.