UN rapporteur distressed at the progress of Swachh Bharat

In an interview to NH, Leo Heller speaks of his distress at the ‘naming and shaming’ strategy followed by the Government and the discrimination against manual scavengers

NH Photo
NH Photo

Bhasha Singh

The report by Leo Heller, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, after a two-week long visit to India, has been described as insensitive and disappointing by the Union Government. But during a conversation with National Herald before flying out of the country, Heller did not mince his words in saying that he was dismayed at what he saw and heard during his visit to India.

Heller had come at the invitation of the Government of India to see the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission. But the number of toilets constructed did not impress him much as he mentioned in his report that the scheme suffered from structural deficiencies and inadequate attention to caste, manual scavengers and availability of water.

During his visit he met members of the civil society, Dalit groups and experts working on water and sanitation. Excerpts from a chat with him :

What has been your impression of the Swachh Bharat Mission?

I have mentioned in my report that two weeks may not be sufficient time to form an assessment in such a large and complex country like India. But I did find the interlink of caste and sanitation disturbing. It did seem to be a major problem. Construction of toilets should not affect the fundamental rights of those who are engaged in manual scavenging. My impression is that government policies lack a clear focus and a holistic, human rights based approach.

What kind of problems did you encounter with the programme?

Water and sanitation are basic human rights, to which the Government of India has also committed in the United Nations. The target to make India open-defecation free is good but it should not be limited to building latrines alone. Sufficient water supply is a pre-requisite to the sustainable and safe use of adequate, low-cost latrines.

What was also disturbing was the ‘name and shame’ strategy which is a clear human rights violation of the poor and the marginalized people. No state should discriminate against people who don’t have toilets. Several such incidents of ‘naming and shaming’ were reported to me during my visit. Human rights are not to be compromised, we need to safeguard them. It is important to note that some studies have also indicated that construction of latrines (esp single pit latrines) will lead to even more unsafe work by manual scavengers.

You also met family members of manual scavengers who lost their lives while cleaning sewer lines...

Listening to them was agonising. I met manual scavengers from Uttar Pradesh and heard from several family members of those who died while emptying latrines or cleaning sewer lines. They claimed they had received no compensation. While their legitimate concerns need to be met, I strongly feel that there is no place for discrimination in Swachh Bharat Mission.

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