Excerpt: Where India Goes by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears
A thought-provoking new book explains that open defecation is a direct consequence of the caste system and has serious health implications. This excerpt shows how ritual purity complicates the installation of latrinesUpdated: Sep 01, 2017 21:56 IST
(Note from the authors: This excerpt contains a few instances in which people we have interviewed refer to specific Dalit castes in terms that are considered objectionable and insulting. We share the view that these terms are insulting but have chosen to use exact quotations because they are important for understanding how people in rural India think about caste and sanitation.)
By the time we had finished the SQUAT survey and the qualitative study that we describe in the Notes at the end of this book, our whole team had come to understand how important the lack of affordable pit latrines is to India’s open defecation crisis. But we did not yet fully understand just how difficult it would be to get a latrine pit emptied in a village. Could someone get a latrine pit emptied if he wanted to? Our r.i.c.e. colleagues returned to Sitapur in December of 2014 to find out.
One of the first things that they learned was that latrine pits are so rarely emptied manually in villages that it is difficult to estimate the price of this service. The few families they found who had ever had a honeycomb style pit emptied reported paying a very high price compared to what they pay for other services in villages.
A young Brahmin man named Abhishek Sharma explained to our colleagues that his relatives had recently needed to get their pit emptied:
There is no one who will empty out a pit here. Near us, in ten, twenty, fifty kilometres, there is no one who will empty out a pit. This is a problem. Our uncle’s latrine pit got filled up. It was a soak [honeycomb style] pit. We had to bring someone from Lucknow to get it emptied out. They took five and half thousand rupees for a two hour job. That’s why this is a big problem.
To put this price into perspective, an unskilled day labourer who works in Sitapur town could expect to earn about 200 rupees per day. He would earn even less if he were working in a village. An economist who is unaware of India’s history of untouchability would be shocked by the high cost of getting a latrine pit emptied. How could someone charge Rs. 5,500 for two hours of manual labour when the wage for day labour in the same market is so much less? For this much money, one could buy two complete latrines in Bangladesh! The economist, drawing upon the familiar model of supply and demand, would expect more workers to enter the market for latrine pit emptying and compete against one another for work until the price of the job came down.
The key reason why people who empty latrine pits can charge much more than the prevailing wage for day labour is that very, very few people are willing to do this work, even for high wages. The model of supply and demand itself is not wrong, but something unique is holding back supply in this case. While visiting an NGO that works on sanitation in Bihar, Diane and Nikhil met a field manager whose job was to convince people to adopt affordable latrines. Having talked to many villagers himself, the field manager understood that people did not want government latrines because they did not want to deal with having to empty latrine pits. He wondered if more people would adopt latrines if he were also able to offer a pit emptying service. But he struggled to find people to provide those services. This is how he explained his recruitment difficulties:
For [people who empty latrine pits] it is like this: if you earn well, but you can’t go to a restaurant, and you can’t go to a temple, then what is the use?
Earlier, we mentioned that one important limit on the pace of social progress in rural India is that higher castes are unwilling to perform traditionally untouchable work, even as more and more Dalits reject these forms of employment. But you might still be wondering whether, faced with such high prices, at least some higher-caste latrine owners would learn to swallow their distaste and empty the latrine pit themselves? After all, as Abhishek Sharma explained, it is a job that takes only a couple of hours.
We did meet a handful of people who had emptied or claimed to be willing to empty their own latrine pits. Most were Muslim. More often than not, they whispered to us that they had emptied the pit under the cover of darkness rather than pay the exorbitant price that a scavenger would charge.
But the vast majority of people we talked with said that they could not even conceive of emptying a latrine pit themselves. Priya, a woman living in peri-urban Sitapur who belonged to a lower, but not a Dalit, caste, explained why:
We cannot empty [the latrine pit] ourselves. We call a Bhangi even if something gets clogged in the latrine… How can we empty it ourselves? It is disgusting, so a Bhangi must come to clean it… We are Hindus, so how can we clean it? [If we do], how will we worship afterwards? If money were an issue we would take a loan for it, we would have to find some way to get it emptied. This work can only be done by people who inherit this occupation. They are Bhangis, they have been created [by God] for this work.
Dalits from non-manual scavenging castes also refuse to empty their own latrine pits. A sixty year old Pasi (a traditionally pig-rearing Dalit caste) man who works as a night watchman explained:
We can’t empty it on our own. It’s their occupation, they are the ones who do it. We are not that. They are the Mehtar caste, so they clean, but we are Pasi, so we can’t clean … If we clean, then we will [be ostracized] — nobody will smoke hookah with us — I mean that nobody will eat or drink with us if we clean [faeces] … People won’t eat with us and they won’t drink water from our cups.
Sometimes, when we were interviewing people about latrines and pit emptying, we would explain how honeycomb style latrine pits work. We did this because most people wrongly believe that if they are used daily, government latrine pits fill up very quickly, in a matter of two or three months. However, a fifty cubic foot latrine pit that is used daily will actually fill up in a matter of years, not months. This is because the water used for flushing, and the water content of the faeces, seeps into the ground.
Incorrect beliefs about how long it takes a pit to fill up lead people to considerably overestimate the cost of owning a latrine. They think that they would have to pay several hundreds or thousands of rupees every few months to have the pit emptied. It is no wonder, then, that the SQUAT survey documented that people think that a latrine pit should be reserved for daughters-in-law, for old people, or for ‘emergencies.’ Pits are a depletable resource: the thinking goes that the more often they are used, the more money will have to be spent on emptying them. We suspect that correcting the false belief that pits fill up in a matter of months could be a good first step for a behaviour change program informed by the complaints rural Indians have about government latrines.
Another way that sanitation behaviour change campaigns might attempt to approach open defecation is by teaching people that decomposed faeces in twin-pit systems are less biologically dangerous than fresh sludge. After all, there is little chance that villagers will learn this from their neighbours. So few twin-pit latrines are in use that most people do not know that faeces decompose and become safer to handle. We hope that information could encourage people to view pit-emptying differently.
However, we are not particularly optimistic that educating people about twin-pit technology would be enough to create behaviour change. After all, in Chapter 3, RS Khare and Damaris Lüthi explained that in places as distinct as Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, people are often far more concerned with ritual purity than with physical germs.
When Nikhil explained the use of twin pits to Abhishek Sharma, he did not challenge the ideas that the faeces would decompose, and that biologically speaking, they would be less infectious. Nevertheless, he was firm that this new information did not change his thinking about pit emptying, nor would it change his family members’ thinking. He said:
We will not be able to do it. I mean, this depends on your thinking and your himmat. People can do it, but we can’t do it.
Several other people also referred to himmat when talking about pit emptying. We found this word choice revealing. Himmat typically translates to ‘courage,’ but when our respondents used it to talk about latrine pit emptying, they linked it to a person’s ‘thinking’ or ‘orientation’ towards caste and untouchability. People with himmat were those who were willing to challenge social norms and face the stigma and ostracization that might accompany such an act.