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SBM and the Environmental Future of Rural Chhattisgarh

In this pertinent blog, Loreen Regnander, an intern at PRIA from University of Victoria, asks an important question: What is the environmental future of rural Chhattisgarh, given the push for constructing toilets under Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM)?

Raipur district is aiming to reach total ODF status by August of 2017, which is almost a year ahead than what was initially scheduled (The Hitavada, 2017). Fellow PRIA colleague Ankur Singh, who was born and raised in Chhattisgarh, tells to me the changes he has seen in Raipur over the years, and the implications of constructing leech pit toilets depending on the height of the ground water table in the area. Ankur explained that the output of fertilizer from the leech pit toilets, called sona khad (“gold fertilizer”), is being sold on the market as some of the most valuable fertilizer you can buy. So, there is great benefit to installing leech pit toilets, as they are enhancing the overall cleanliness and sanitation of communities while also providing a significant source of income that is mutually beneficial for the environment and the local economy.

Unfortunately, good news does not come without the bad. In recent weeks, there have been multiple news stories documenting the struggles of local village leaders who took on high amounts of debt to reach ODF targets. These leaders borrowed money, labour and materials to construct toilets in their villages, with the promise of being reimbursed by panchayats after three months of use. However the money never came and now these village leaders are threatening suicide because they are facing daily threats from the people whom they owe large amounts of money to (Singhal, 2017). This is in addition to other SBM related violence such as the 44-year-old man in Rajasthan who was killed for disputing civic officials photographing (shaming) his wife and daughter defecating in the open. There have also been mass hoardings in villages threatening people with the death penalty for open defecating (Singhal, 2017).

This is the result of trying to achieve a “target” rather than understanding that addressing the issues of sanitation and cleanliness is a process and not a point in time that can be crossed over like a finish line. Arundati Muralidharan of WaterAid India explains, “Shaming people in public, not marking students’ attendance in school and not allowing villagers to vote in local elections for defecating in the open are not the way to trigger a change in mindset,” (Singhal, 2017). By allowing a target goal to come before the respect and rights of the people, the mission fails ethically and socially, and will not produce the sustainable results SBM hopes to achieve by 2019.

Lack of Environmental Concern
Currently, India ranks in the top 38% of the most environmentally vulnerable countries in the world in relation to climate change. Which means, rural areas and indigenous communities will be some of the most heavily impacted by extreme weather events such as drought and unpredictable flooding events. Currently, more than 663 million people do not have access to clean water, and most of these people live in rural areas (Hindustan Times, 2017).

Up until this point I had not associated the close interrelation between SBM and changing environmental conditions. Swachh Bharat Mission is being implemented in rural communities, yet nowhere does it address future adaptation strategies in response to climate change and environmental degradation. And while I understand that addressing the social and cultural changes that must occur for SBM to be achieved is important, so too is addressing the increasingly prominent environmental concerns that are looming like an elephant in a tiny room. You can’t address one without the other. As PRIA’s Water Security Planning Training Report notes, “A parallel need exists to develop and implement a system of safeguards to satisfy drinking water demand” (PRIA, 2017).

I met with Anurag Gupta, the program coordinator for UK based organization, WaterAid here in Raipur. The meeting went as expected with much of Gupta’s insight I had already found on the WaterAid website, but things got interesting when I asked how future challenges such as climate change are being considered in SBM, and in other schemes related to water plans? Gupta informed me that Chhattisgarh currently does not have a water policy or plan in place, and as such, rural communities are already facing severe implications of climate change. An example of this, Gupta describes is the 2002 drought that swept across India, and monsoon rains over the years have still not been enough to address the negligence of water resources in India, let alone rural communities. There have also been cases where more than 20 village blocks have had toxic amounts of arsenic and fluoride present in their water sources, and sometimes bore wells must be dug more than 300 feet to reach the groundwater table.

Mahanadi River in 2017

Additionally, not only are the groundwater resources not being protected for rural communities, they are being sold off to resource and mining extraction companies that completely obliterate ground water resources and are the number one cause of heavy deforestation in the rural areas of India. The combination of these activities results in polluted water sources, as well as diminishing access to forest and the resources that the forest provides rural communities (Business Standard, 2016).

Donde Khurd water flowing into field

These all might seem like separate concerns, and so far, they have been addressed as such. But I don’t believe they are separate at all, and instead, need to be addressed simultaneously. If India wishes to achieve ODF status by 2019, then government officials, at all levels, need to begin incorporating serious environmental and water protection plans alongside initiatives such as SBM. For even if you temporarily achieve ODF status, the hostile environmental future that is being created with the lack of consideration for environmental resources such as water, will completely jeopardize and ultimately result in the failure of SBM. For without water, there will be no life, and without life there will be no villages, people will be forced to migrate in mass climate migrations, and having access to toilets will not be an option. There will be no water left for basic sanitation practices such as washing hands and flushing toilets. These issues are not separate, but rather a chain of events, that when not treated together, will result in the weakest link breaking the entire chain.

Business Standard, Chhattisgarh government cancels tribal rights over forest lands. 2016. Retrieved online: http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/chhattisgarh-govt-cancels-tribal-rights-over-forest-lands-116021601327_1.html

PRIA, Water security planning training report. 2017. Retrieved https://pria.org/uploaded_files/article_category/1501136321_WSP%20Report.pdf

Singhal, A., Coercive measures under Swachh Bharat mission impinging on people’s freedom. June 2017. Retrieved: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/coercive-measures-under-swachh-bharat-mission-impinging-on-people-s-freedom-58129

The Hitavada, Novel initiative by villagers of Donde Khurd to curb open defecation. 2017. Retrieved from: http://thehitavada.com/Encyc/2017/7/4/Novel-initiative-by-villagers-of-Donde-Khurde-to-curb-open-defecation.aspx

All photos courtesy Loreen Regnander, University of Victoria, Canada

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