On September 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received an award in New York from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his government’s sanitation campaign the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The same day, two children were beaten to death in Bhavkhedi village, about 450 kms from Delhi, over defecating in the open.

In the records of the Indian government, Bhavkhedi village in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri district is “open defecation free”. This means, according to the government, every household in the village has a toilet. Government records show 247 toilets were built in the village under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which gives Rs 12,000 as assistance to every family building a toilet.

Since the scheme was launched on October 2, 2014, the government claims more than 10 crore toilets have been built in India, making the entire country “open defecation free”.

But the deaths of the children powerfully illustrate what independent studies have consistently found: that merely building toilets is not enough to improve sanitation in rural India. The scheme’s success is exaggerated. It has failed to create durable sanitation facilities, let alone end open defecation, because it has ignored the bedrock of poor sanitation practices in India: the caste system.

Avinash Valmiki (centre) with his two siblings.

The tragedy

On the outskirts of Bhavkhedi village stands a mud hut with a thatched roof covered with tarpaulin. Avinash Valmiki, 10, lived here with his parents, two siblings, and Roshni, 12, his father’s younger sister. A few hundred metres away lies the home of his paternal grandfather.

In a village with 269 households according to the 2011 census, these are the only homes of the Dalit Valmiki community, considered the lowest in the village’s caste-based social order.

While Avinash Valmiki’s home did not have a toilet, his grandfather’s home did – it had been built under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Two months ago, however, it had fallen into disuse. “The toilet flooded when the rains came and now it is a dump,” said Manoj Valmiki, Avinash’s father. “Sometimes there are snakes there too.”

On September 25, the two children, Avinash and Roshni, left their home around 6.30 am to relieve themselves. Since the family does not own any land, they squatted near the fields owned by village’s dominant Yadav community. Two Yadav brothers, Rameshwar Yadav and Hakam Yadav, allegedly took objection to that and beat them with sticks. The children died on the spot.

“It was too late by the time I reached the spot,” said Manoj Valmiki. “They had beaten them so badly on their heads. I also saw that Roshni’s kurta was torn and that the knot on her pants had loosened.”

After the two men were arrested, some members of the police tried to explain away the violence. “Hakam Yadav was mentally unstable,” said Manoj Pachauri, head constable at Sirsod police station. The station house officer RS Dhakad, however, clarified: “It is false that he is unstable. He is healthy and in jail.” The family of both the men have locked their home and left the village.

Manoj Valmiki (left) and his father Kalan Valmiki (right).

Caste and work

There is an older history of dispute between the Valmikis and the Yadavs. Manoj Valmiki said that two weeks ago, Hakam Yadav had threatened to shoot him with his gun if he refused to work on his fields. “He wanted me to harvest tomatoes,” Manoj Valmiki said. “I had not worked for them before and I did not want to either.”

Traditionally, India’s caste system assigned work to people based on the caste they were born into. In the villages, this was combined with a feudal order which bound lower castes to lifelong servitude to higher caste patrons.

Kalan Valmiki, the family patriarch now in his sixties, remembers moving to the village around 20 years back. Apart from working in the agricultural fields of a few Yadav families, the main landowners in the village, he was asked to clean the streets. “They would pay me by giving me stale food,” he said.

The village did not have toilets at that time – only a handful of families had dry latrines. The Valmikis were expected to clean them. This degrading practice of manual scavenging, in which Dalits were expected to carry away faecal matter in overhead baskets, was banned by the Indian government under a law passed in 1993, but it continues in many places even now.

In Bhavkhedi, the dry latrines have been replaced by toilets which are connected to a sludge pit. But some Yadav families still call upon the Valmikis to clean them.

Manoj Valmiki said he cleans the toilets in four homes in the village for a measly pay of Rs 20 per household. “I have to get my own brush from home,” he said. “There are times when they do not pay me.”

Even the village’s primary school calls the Valmikis when toilet-cleaning is required. “We sometimes call Manoj Valmiki’s brother to clean them,” said the primary school in-charge Kiran Mazi.

Caste and toilets

In a country where toilet-cleaning is considered impure work to be done by the lowest castes, sanitation drives face a big stumbling block. As a study released in January 2019 pointed out: “Open defecation is far more prevalent in rural India than in other, poorer countries because of social forces: ideas of ritual purity and pollution related to untouchability and the caste system, and realised in fears about latrine pits filling up and needing emptying.”

In other words, people do not want to build toilets near homes because they consider them polluting.

Such attitudes also partly explain the poor usage of toilets built under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, explains the study, which was done by researchers from the Research Institute of Compassionate Economics and the Centre for Policy Research.

In 2014, they surveyed sanitation practices in 157 villages across four states of North India and revisited a random subset in 2018. They found open defecation had declined from 70% to about 40-50% in these villages – nowhere close to the rate claimed by the government, but better than previous years.

“Much of the reduction in open defecation is a result of new latrine construction: nearly six in
10 households that did not own a latrine in 2014 acquired one by the 2018 survey,” the study states. “However, the fraction of people who own a latrine, but who nevertheless defecate in the open, did not change between 2014 and 2018: it was about 23% in both years.”

Significantly, the researchers found open defecation was less common in households with larger latrine pits. “One reason for this pattern is that smaller pits are perceived to require frequent emptying, an activity which is associated with caste impurity,” the study states. “Large pits, in contrast, do not require emptying as frequently, and therefore their use does not invoke the same worries about contact with faeces or hiring a manual scavenger.”

The subsidy under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – Rs 12,000 per toilet – is not enough to build larger pits. This is one of the reasons why many of the toilets constructed under the campaign have been abandoned.

The state of toilets

According to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s website, only three toilets existed in Bhavkhedi village in 2014 when the scheme was launched. Now, there are 250 toilets.

But most of them appear not to be in use. They were either being used as storage space or had been left to crumble with creepers growing on their walls.

In the government records, however, the village continues to be “open defecation free”, raising questions over the flawed use of this term. As many have pointed out, the government’s claims of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s success are shallow since they are based merely on the construction of toilets, not their actual use over time.

The village residents gave several different reasons for not using the toilets.

Some like Ishwar Lal and his family complained of the underground slush pit getting flooded in the rains soon after the toilet was built using Swachh Bharat funds in 2017. “The toilet has been shut since the day it was made because of the rains,” said Lal, 42, who works as a daily wage worker and belongs to the Koli community. “The water is just there. It does not go down.”

Lal and his family defecate in the open. “We go to a stream that flows near the house,” he said.

Ishwar Lal's toilet is covered in creepers that grew over time.

Another resident, Kumar Raj, 63, built three toilets but does not use any of them. Raj alleged that he was forced to build the toilets by the village head Suraj Yadav. “He told me that my benefits from the Awas Yojana [housing assistance scheme] will be blocked if I do not build the toilets,” said Raj, who runs a shop in the village.

Despite building the toilets on his own money – the village head said he was not eligible for assistance under Swachh Bharat – Raj admits he does not use them. “There is no water connection,” he said. “We just go outdoors and defecate.”

Kumar Raj stands next to the three toilets he built. He does not use any of them.

A blinkered approach

Two days after the killing of the children in Bhavkhedi, the central government issued an advisory: “No coercion should be used to ensure [open defecation free] in any area.”

But over the last five years, the government itself set the template as district, block and village officials racing to meet the toilet-building targets used coercion while implementing the scheme.

“Coercion included harassment, fines, denial of public benefits, and in some cases even detention by the police,” the study released in January 2019 states. “Scheduled Tribe and Schedule Caste households were more likely than households from other social groups to report that they faced coercion.”

The coercion was aimed at meeting targets set on paper, because once the targets were met, fund advancement for toilet construction was stopped in the villages of Madhya Pradesh.

In Bhavkhedi, Manoj Valmiki was one of the few residents who did not have a toilet at home. He lacked the money to build one on his own and when he asked the sarpanch for funds under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, he was told his name was not on the beneficiary list.

He claimed this was not the case initially. He suspected the sarpanch, who belongs to the Yadav community, must have struck his name off the list and given the benefit due to him “to another Yadav family”.

The sarpanch, Suraj Yadav, however, said that Manoj Valmiki’s name was never on the list to begin with. “Who am I to remove his name from the list?” he said. The beneficiary list was prepared according to a baseline survey conducted in 2012. “At that time, Manoj Valmiki and his father were one household,” he said.

Suraj Yadav, the sarpanch, denied allegations of taking Manoj Valmiki's name off the beneficiary list to build toilets. He admitted that few families in the village were using the toilets constructed under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan..

Officially, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan claims families left out of the baseline survey were subsequently identified and given grants. But its website shows that only 26 toilets were built for families left out of the baseline survey in Shivpuri tehsil where Bhavkhedi is located – a small fraction of the 24,555 toilets built in Shivpuri tehsil under the scheme. None of the 26 toilets were built in Bhavkhedi.

This narrow focus on meeting targets for toilet construction often through the use of coercion may have earned the Prime Minister an award, but it has not resulted in lasting sanitation improvements in rural India.

“Despite claims to the contrary, open defecation unfortunately is still a pressing problem in rural India,” the study published in January 2019 concludes. “A wide literature now documents the roots of rural north India’s open defecation in casteism and untouchability, and especially in the implications of these social ideas for latrine pit emptying and use.” Transforming such social attitudes would be key to ending open defecation, not merely building rudimentary toilets which fall into disuse.

Enduring discrimination

For the Valmiki family, the killing of the two children over open defecation comes as the last straw in a lifetime of daily humiliation. “There is not a day when [the Yadavs] would not call me ‘bhangi’,” said Manoj Valmiki. ‘Bhangi’ is a derogatory term used for members of the Valmiki community, also called Mehtar.

The desire to escape the hierarchical village life, however, clashed with anxiety about prospects outside. “I am an uneducated person,” he said. “Who will hire me?”

Hopeful that education would help the next generation find a better life, the Valmikis were sending their children to school. But even school life was marred by discrimination. Manoj Valmiki alleged that the children were made to sit separately, asked to carry their own utensils, and not allowed to drink water from the school hand pump.

“This is why they were scared to go to school and they did not go often,” he said. “Yadav families had told the teacher to separate the children.”

Bhavkhedi has two government schools – a primary school where Avinash Valmiki was enrolled as Abhi Jamadar and a middle school where Roshni Valmiki was enrolled as Suman Jamadar. Teachers in both schools denied there was segregation and untouchability practised there.

But a 10-year-old child confirmed it. “We always wash our hands after speaking to Avinash because he is from a lower caste,” said Satvir Singh, a student at the primary school, belonging to the Yadav community. “Avinash always sat at the back of the classroom.”

A list of children from Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes painted in Bhavkhedi's government-run middle school. Teachers claimed government officials insisted that the lists be displayed on the walls.

The discrimination was practised against the Valmiki children even though lists painted on the school walls showed Dalit students outnumbered those from the Yadav community which is counted among the Other Backward Classes. Across North India, with families that can afford private education opting out of government schools, the schools have been left with mostly Dalit students. In Bhavkhedi, this is even more so, since 61% of the village population belongs to the Scheduled Castes, according to the 2011 census.

Among the Dalits, the Jatavs appear to be the largest community in the village. They complained of caste discrimination by Yadavs over temple access and water use, but they were silent about discrimination at school. That seems to have been reserved for just the Valmiki children.

The murder of his son and his sister has made Manoj Valmiki take a hard decision.

“I am scared,” he said. “I am going to leave his village.”