On Sunday, an IAS officer held a 'swachhta mahasabha' (cleanliness conference) in Aurangabad district in Bihar to urge villagers to build toilets in their homes. While informing the villagers about the government schemes that they were eligible to benefit from, district magistrate Kanwal Tanuj was interrupted by a villager who pointed out an issue that keeps many of them from availing the well-meaning government schemes -- and that is poverty. Miffed at the villager's question, Tanuj allegedly brusquely told him to sell off his wife if he cannot build a toilet in the house for her, The Telegraph reported.
So what was the villager's question? He had pointed out that he was too poor to spend money to build a toilet and would like an advance instead.
In Bihar, under the Centre's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Nitish Kumar's scheme for the state, villagers are eligible for a Rs 12,000 reimbursement if they build toilets in their homes. However, they are eligible for it only after the toilet has been built and the local panchayat issues a document verifying such a claim. The process seems legitimate on paper -- build a toilet, get reimbursed for it -- and is possibly designed to prevent people from taking advances and not building the toilets at all. However, it is general knowledge that several poor people may not be able to cough up that kind of money to build the toilet in the first place.
Tanuj later alleged that he was exasperated at the thought of the men -- like the villager who asked him the question -- not caring about women's security, when defecating in the open makes them vulnerable to sexual assault.
In effect, the villager's question should have been treated as a challenge that the government policies had failed to consider and ideally should spend time addressing. However, Tanuj lost his cool at what could have been a genuine query.
While it must be acknowledged that getting people to embrace hygienic toilet habits would ideally need a little nudge from the government, interactions involving government agents and citizens have to be empathetic and sensitive. It has to be considered that the government is asking people to embrace a new way of life, breaking out of years of conditioning, familiarity and often superstition. It is a known fact that several Indian villages consider defecating inside the home 'unholy' and an activity that goes against their religious beliefs. To overcome these challenges, agencies implementing such schemes have to be both firm and empathetic -- it's a tricky ground.
And at times, they seem to be failing at it. Take for example, the incident that took place in Pratapgarh in Rajasthan last month. The local civic body in the area had been trying to stop people from defecating in the open. In order to compel them to use community toilets, civic body officials would often visit the area popular for defecation and click pictures, hustling the people and threatening to shame them. When 44-year-old Zafar Hussain protested the process, he got into a scuffle with the civic body officials who allegedly beat him to death.