The everywhere of sanitation: violence, oppression and the body

New Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had nothing to say on the attacks in Uttar Pradesh, but a debate has emerged in India about how a rich country can lag so dangerously far behind its competitors in providing basic safe and clean sanitation.

Colin McFarlane
11 June 2014
Farm hands from dalit communities walk through the mustard field in Uttar Pradesh

Farm hands from dalit communities walk through a mustard field in Uttar PradeshDemotix/Arindam Mukherjee. All rights reserved.It is difficult to imagine a more profound illustration of the necessity of sanitation to life itself: two teenage girls venturing into the fields at night, brutally raped, killed and left to hang from a mango tree. They left their homes because they had no alternative, due to the denial of adequate sanitation, but to answer the call of nature by use of a nearby field.

This is a shocking and extremely sad story of violence and vulnerability in Uttar Pradesh, India. What kind of vulnerability is this? A vulnerability produced by caste oppression, the normalisation of horrific violence against poor women, and the structural and systematic failure of the Indian state to provide the minimum of everyday rights: a clean, functional toilet. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights recently reported that 67% of low caste Dalit women - often referred to as ‘untouchable’ - have faced some form of sexual violence (Soundararajan, 2014). This is likely to be an underestimate. Many of these attacks happen because women are forced into open defecation in fields, railway tracks, forest areas, garbage grounds, and other marginal spaces across India. The denial of adequate toilets, a profound and fundamental bodily need, gives rise to an opportunity for the worst kind of bodily violence. When it comes to rape, the oppressive ethic of ‘untouchability’ appears to give way.

There is a profound sadness to the unfolding of India’s sanitation history. Is there any sphere of human life more intimately connected to progress, however discredited that notion may have become, than adequate sanitation? Sanitation is historically a bringer of life and health – more important than Independence, Gandhi famously observed – but in practice it symbolises the threat of violence, and is intimately linked to crushing forms of torturous poverty.

New Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had nothing to say on the attacks in Uttar Pradesh, but a debate has emerged in India about how a rich country can lag so dangerously far behind its competitors in providing basic safe and clean sanitation. For the sad and shocking truth is that this is the latest more extreme example of entrenched daily violence emergent from inequalities in gender, caste, class and sanitation in India. Poor sanitation conditions are not the cause of caste-based gendered violence, but the denial of sanitation facilitates the toxic relationship between vulnerability and violence more profoundly than any other facet of Indian life. For millions of Indian women, everyday life is a series of struggles, anxieties and risks around sanitation.

If Modi said anything at all in his recent election campaign that mattered, it was this: toilets matter more than temples. India’s sanitation crisis ought to be a living obsession for the new Indian government: at least as important as the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa (Soundararajan, 2014).

The tragedy of sanitation is that it is fundamentally not just about toilets and pipes. Sanitation is far more than the staples of daily life, the unglamorous backstage of everyday life, as Erving Goffman once put it. Sanitation is an incessantly morphing object: it is immersed in and enrolled through malnutrition, violence, caste cultural politics, sexism, ethno-religious hatred, political patronage, educational disadvantage, illness and disease, precarious livelihoods, unemployment, environmental pollution, and more.

Inadequate sanitation intensifies India’s poverty and displays its inequalities more starkly than any other aspect of life in the country. It is a tragedy of the rural and urban commons. And yet, while we should not pretend that solutions are straightforward, it is hardly rocket science to fix inadequate sanitation, and there are plenty of low-cost, technologically flexible, and context specific options out there, if only the political will was in place to deliver them (Mara, 2012). In countries where that political will is real – examples include Vietnam and Malaysia, who put the emergent global superpower to shame - open defecation has been all but eliminated, and India’s neighbour Pakistan has had far higher rates of success despite still being a very long way from universal provision.

In 2011, Aasma Sheikh, a resident of Rafinagar, a predominantly Muslim slum in northeast Mumbai and one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city, suddenly became the subject of media attention. She and her infant son featured centrally in a report that was part of the Hindustan Times newspaper’s ‘Hunger Project’ (Bhattacharya, 2011). She was the mother of Gulnaz, a severely malnourished child that caught the media’s attention. Malnutrition here is common, a product of poor sanitation conditions and crippling poverty. Aasma was prescribed medicines to treat the illnesses that she, Gulnaz and her other children suffered from and which were exacerbated by malnutrition, but the cost of water meant that she could not afford to buy them. She had to spend Rs. 30-40 on water per day, she said. She was faced with the choice: water or medicine. The child later died. While Mumbai gets an average water supply of 200 litres per capita per day, the city's slums get less than 90 litres. Informal neighbourhoods such as Rafinagar get nothing, at least not legally. Families here earn roughly Rs. 100-150 per day, a substantial amount of which goes on water and kerosene.

Following the Hindustan Times report, then women and child development minister, Varsha Gaikwad, visited Rafinagar, but no change followed and the deaths from a combination of malnutrition, poor sanitation and low incomes have continued. In fact, local public health NGO Apnalaya stated that the situation has worsened. Here is India’s ‘development miracle’. India shining, an economy celebrated for its growth rates, a middle class that has firmly announced itself as at one with the globalisation party, and where poor women must choose between fields and the risk of rape when they need the toilet, or between water and medicine for their children when they are ill from poor sanitation and a failing welfare system. Even beyond these extreme but not uncommon stories, the links between gender, class, caste, religion and sanitation fragment and oppress daily lives across the country.

“If we had to pick one tangible symbol of male privilege in the city”, write Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade in their 2011 book on Mumbai, Why Loiter?, “the winner hands-down would be the public toilet” (ibid: 79). They show how in Mumbai, India’s richest city, not only is there a profound imbalance of provisions of toilets for women as compared to men, the size, functionality and location of public toilets is extremely circumscribed. This is particularly difficult for poorer and usually lower caste women, who find it harder to make use, for instance, of the toilets of hotels or restaurants, and for whom the lack of toilets is, as Phadke et al (ibid. 80) put it, “a reminder of her unwantedness in the city”.

This unwantedness reflects in part the gendered nature of infrastructure provision in the city and expectations about who uses and should be using public space, as well as cultural notions of pollution and the female body associated in particular with Hindu social orders linking caste and gender. Women’s bodies, like toilets themselves, are often linked to contamination, dirt and pollution, meaning that many people are reluctant even to speak about sanitation: “Women’s bodies are associated with bodily secretions – menstruation, ovulation, lactation – seen as sources of ritual contamination at particular times of the month or year” (ibid. 82). The impact on the everyday health of women is profound.

Sometimes this cultural politics of ‘pollution’ can be turned on its head. A few years ago, a public toilet block run by a private company in Rafinagar doubled the pay-per-use price from Rs.1 to Rs.2. In this neighbourhood, women are discriminated against in several ways: as Muslims in an illegal neighbourhood distant from the public eye and living on the edge of the city’s largest garbage ground, Deonar. A group of residents began to protest the price hike, as Mumtaz related: “The public created a scene. They went and sat down [to defecate] anywhere, in the maidan [open ground], on the road, near the clinic…So that he [the toilet block caretaker] will also not be able to sit there, he will also get the stink, no?”

Mumtaz positions smell, not organizational pressure, as key to this political act. This is a form of protest in which an urban collective temporarily constitutes a political moment that dramatizes the limited options available to the poor, forced here to use their own bodies as political agents in their own neighborhoods. The protest in the end was successful, and points to a wider set of small contestations whereby residents try to maintain conditions or nudge them in a different direction.

These are temporary conflicts that resonate with accounts of lower key contentious politics, where urban public spaces become particularly important for pursuing and registering grievances (e.g., Bayat 2010). They are part of a longer repertoire of what Sudipta Kaviraj (1997: 110) calls “small rebelliousness” around sanitation, where improvised defilement itself becomes a political outlet that depends on the power of smell, irritation, and proximity. Small rebelliousness, emergent in metabolic and social desperation, with small victories, repeated daily up and down the country. Up and down the country, sanitation is everyday violence, oppression, exploitation and politicization of different forms.

To take another example, in August 2013, to demand rehabilitation and immediate passage of a pending Bill outlawing ‘manual scavenging’ - cleaning drains and sewers with your bare hands - and providing provisions for retraining, hundreds of manual scavengers, and many of their family members, from across the country burnt their baskets at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The protests were aimed at the most oppressive working conditions in the country, where workers are squeezed into narrow urban drains, surrounded by raw sewage and toxic gases. In Delhi, in February 2013, three men were killed trying to unblock a drain underneath the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. In Chennai, two months later, two men died attempting to unblock a 40-foot deep septic tank underneath a hotel.

The men, typically working without any safety gear, were killed by asphyxiation from polluting gases in the drains. These stories of death, not to mention disease and illness, from cleaning drains and sewers, can be multiplied in cities across India. While many states in India have banned the practice commonly referred to as ‘manual scavenging’ - always carried out by Dalits - and insisted sanitation workers are issued with adequate safety equipment, in practice the process continues.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in June 2011, called manual scavenging “one of the darkest blots on [India’s] development process”, but two years later the Supreme Court expressed serious concern at the inordinate delay in passing the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, developed in 2012 and aimed at amending and replacing the existing 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. The new bill promises rehabilitation for manual scavengers in the form of training and education grants, but its slow implementation brought some of India’s most marginalised, exploited and desperate workers onto the streets of the capital.

Sanitation is not a development target. It is more than this. It is a network, ever morphing: an ideology of pollution, a cultural logic of oppression, a political economy of class inequality, a social relation of gender, caste and religion, and an infrastructural challenge. It is a symbol of exploitation and fear, the promise of health, and the possibility of safety, education and livelihood. All India needs to fix this is public pressure and political will. The new government must be held to account on its capacity to provide this most fundamental of bodily requirements, and the debate that has begun cannot be allowed to pass over into another instance of temporary public fury.


Bhattacharya, P. (2011) ‘A bad return on investment’. Hindustan Times, accessed July 2014 (published October 14th, 2011).

Kaviraj, S. (1997) ‘Filth and the public sphere: concepts and practices about space in Calcutta’. Public Culture, 10:1, 83-113.

Mara, D. (2012) ‘Sanitation: what’s the real problem?’ IDS Bulletin, 43:2, 86-92.

Phadke, S., Khan, S., and Ranade, S. (2011) Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets. Penguin: New Delhi.

Soundararajan, T. (2014) ‘India’s caste culture is a rape culture’. Women in the World, The Daily Beast: accessed July 2014.

Bayat, A. (2010) Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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