“What is the problem, you ask? They promised to give us latrines and they did not. That is the problem.”

Ram Surema, a resident of Semra village in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, is dismissive of the Narendra Modi government’s claim that the village is now 100% Open Defecation Free.

Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in October 2014 with the stated goal of eliminating open defecation in India by October 2019, to symbolically coincide with Mohandas Gandhi’s 150th birthday. To do this, the government launched a massive toilet-building programme, offering Rs 12,000 as subsidy to households for building a toilet.

By early January 2019, the government claims, five lakh villages and 25 states and Union Territories had become Open Defecation Free. They include Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state which has a reputation for being one of the worst governed.

According to official data, Uttar Pradesh has been particularly successful in running the Swachh Bharat Mission. Household toilet coverage was just 35.19% in October 2014. It is now 100%, the government claims. It also says 87.9% of the toilets built under the programme are being regularly used.

In all, as per the government, 99.98% of Uttar Pradesh villages are Open Defecation Free. Semra is listed as one of them. In fact, the entire block of Mau, in which Semra falls, has been declared Open Defecation Free.

Semra’s residents reject these claims. Many say they do not have toilets and are compelled to defecate outdoors. The government’s vigilante-style promotion of Swachh Bharat, they complain, has only deepened the stigma around open defecation without providing them an alternative.

Mau Block Development Officer Ramesh Chandra Shukla agreed. “According to the baseline survey, we are ODF,” he said. “But according to the eligible population, we are not.”

A survey that excludes

The baseline survey Shukla refers to was done in 2012. The countrywide exercise mapped eligible households that did not have toilets. Eligible households in rural areas were those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, those with incomes below the poverty line and other vulnerable groups such as landless workers, the disabled and widows.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the government provides a toilet-building subsidy to the eligible households identified by the baseline survey. Once all such households build toilets and the government verifies this, the village is declared Open Defecation Free.

In Semra, official records show, 366 households are eligible for the subsidy. The village’s headman, Vijay Kumar, claims the target has been met. “There are 366 [sanctioned] toilets in Semra, of which 364 I can confirm have been built,” he said.

But data from the block office shows only 264 toilets have been constructed; the rest are in the works.

Toilet of a primary school in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh. Photo credit: Khabar Lahariya

The bigger problem is that many eligible families were not counted in the baseline survey. There are no official estimates but the villagers claim about half of Semra’s 600-odd households were left out.

One of them is Rajmani’s. “I am a widow. There is no earning member in my family,” she said. “I do not have a toilet.”

Shukla claimed a new list was drafted on October 3, 2018 to include those left out of the baseline survey. He did not disclose how many households were added to the list.

Anger among those left out

The government’s claim that Semra has become Open Defecation Free has angered the villagers. “Some of us have incomplete latrines, few have functional ones,” said Surema. “Most have none at all.”

Rannu Devi, who has applied for the toilet subsidy, said the Swachh Bharat Mission has only made the situation worse for people like her. “If I defecate in the open, I’m shouted at,” she said. “But where I am supposed to go?”

Vijay Kumar put it down pat: “If we defecate in somebody’s fields, it usually ends in a fight.”

Many families in Semra do not own land. The government’s campaign promoting toilet use and its claim of providing support to whoever wants to build a toilet has emboldened the landowning upper castes to deny the others access to their fields.

“If we defecate anywhere, we get yelled at and abused,” said Gulab Kali, a resident. “All land here belongs to the Thakurs, we don’t own anything. So, where do we go?”


A subsidy that falls short

The government claims Rs 12,000 is adequate to build a “low cost but good quality” toilet.

But the experience of Semra’s villagers shows it is not. Many of their toilets are lying incomplete.

The money is not enough to cover the cost of constructing a toilet, the villagers say, let alone for putting in a “handwash unit” as mandated by the Swachh Bharat guidelines.

Asked about this, Kumar sprung to the government’s defence. The subsidy is to “facilitate a positive change” in people’s mindset, he said, implying that it is not intended to cover the entire cost of a constructing a functional toilet.

Is government fudging data?

All of Mau block has been declared Open Defecation Free, but data from the Block Development Office shows 3,927 of the sanctioned toilets in the block remain to be built.

How was his block declared Open Defecation Free even before the official targets were met? Shukla casually replied that the remaining toilets would be completed “any time now”.

The government is supposed to conduct a verification drive before declaring an area Open Defecation Free. But of the 97,000 villages declared so in Uttar Pradesh thus far, only 33,000 have been verified.

Shukla claimed verification drives were being carried out by his teams every 15-20 days. In the villages, though, no one had seen any evidence of this.

While some families in Semra are saddled with incomplete toilets, others are waiting to get the subsidy. In effect, said Rajamani, a resident, they are worse off than before. “When I go outside to relieve myself, they do not let me sit down,” she said. “You tell me, what am I supposed to do?”