When caste, sanitation, impunity come together | HT editorial
The killing of Dalit children for defecating in the open reveals the long battle aheadUpdated: Sep 26, 2019 21:27 IST
As India inches towards declaring itself an open-defecation-free (ODF) country, two Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri have been beaten to death for defecating in the open. This reflects an intersection of three central concerns — sanitation, caste, and the rule of law.
The laudable ODF initiative has covered a staggering 5.5 million villages. The number of Indian defecating in open has gone down from 550 million in 2014 to under 50 million in 2018-19. But traditionally, caste dynamics and notions of purity have played a role in Indian sanitation practices. In Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and The Costs of Caste, Dean Spears and Diane Coffey argue that open defecation is not the result of poverty, but a direct consequence of the caste system, untouchability and ritual purity. Dalits, almost exclusively, are tasked with cleaning toilets.
The ODF campaign’s tone may appear caste-neutral, but there is an implicit, and sometimes rather explicit, caste dynamic on the ground. The Shivpuri victims had stopped outside the Panchayat building on September 25 to defecate. The boys’ father has alleged caste-based animosity led to the crime. That the accused are from the same village and were aware of the victims’ identity lends credence to this allegation. Besides age-old prejudice and an unequal power dynamic, the reluctance of law enforcement agencies to take on culprits reinforces a sense of impunity. As witnessed in the recent investigations into lynching cases, the rule of law is often observed in breach when it comes to hate crimes. Unless India takes on caste atrocities, refines its ODF campaign to take into account caste realities and battles impunity, an equal and dignified society will remain elusive.