Bharat: Swacch for thousands of years

Ancient Indian cities like Mohenjo-Daro had well-planned sanitation systems in place.

India’s earliest sanitation systems date back to 2600 BC, during the Indus Valley Civilisation as excavations have shown. Yet the country and its citizens knowingly or unknowingly propagate the ideologies of British India when it comes to eradicating open defecation. That is, until recently.

Sacrosanct in ancient India

From the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation to British India, India witnessed the rise and fall of several imperial powers and dynasties, and with them their own practices and principles of sanitation. For instance, the Vedic Aryans had brick homes with water tanks, but the toilets were built outside. In the Kushana empire’s city of Chirand (in modern-day Bihar), open defecation was prohibited. Excavation of the ancient city revealed a well-planned drainage system with soak pits.

The Gupta dynasty and its cities were initially characterised by a haphazard settlement pattern where open defecation was a daily routine. Eventually sanitation became a concern of the state in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and toilets were constructed inside housing units. Those who defecated in the open were penalised. The practice continued during the Mughal rule, but in some parts of the empire open defecation became common.

The practice deepened the social divide based on sanitation and a new socio-economic class of manual scavengers or halalkhors came into being. In 1556, Jahangir commissioned the construction of community toilets for approximately 100 households near Delhi. But poor maintenance forced people to defecate in the open. By the 1900s, influenced by the Europeans and for the security of women, the Mughals began building toilets with a bathroom on their premises known as ghusalkhana, for the use of kings, queens and her maids, while the general public relieved itself in community toilets or elsewhere.

Selective reforms of the British

By the time the British came to India and established themselves as a colonial trading power in the 1770s, poet John Harrington had developed the flush toilet system in Britain in 1596. But the sewerage network came into existence only in 1850 in Britain, in an attempt to address environmental deterioration and rising epidemics in the wake of industrialisation.

Back in India, the British introduced the modern sanitation system after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, based on the recommendations of the Royal Commission, which was appointed in 1859 to look into the sanitary state of an epidemic-hit army. Sanitary reforms were launched and spatial segregation of indigenous and European population became vital. Model towns, cantonments and civil lines came up and areas boasted of a modern sewerage system interwoven with a network of pipelines and latrines, while the indigenous population, derogated as ‘dirty’, drowned in its own waste. The idea behind this plan was that it was cheaper and more effective to address issues of environmental degradation than spend large amounts of public finance on relief for the poor.

Dawn of legislation

As state intervention was required for achieving this goal, these sanitary reforms soon became political and gained the support of the middle and upper class. In 1848, the Public Health Act was passed in England. It was only in the late 1860s that public health and sanitation became effective with the passing of the Sanitary Act of 1866.

This sanitary revolution and its implementation were managed by the provincial sanitary police force headed by a military medical officer. Sanitary boards and inspectors were delegated with the task of vaccinating the indigenous section and other menial containment measures, like managing public health during Hindu and Muslim pilgrimages.

At the city level, the need for a sanitised society was reinforced and a resolution for the establishment of a local self-government (LSG) by Lord Ripon was passed in 1882. These newly-formed institutions at the local level were given the power to collect taxes to finance sanitation services and public works.

In 1885, the LSG Act was passed and urban local bodies (ULBs) came into existence for sanitation at the local level. Yet necessary staff was not appointed by the Central government. With an outbreak of the plague in 1896 in the port towns of Bombay and Calcutta, the need for bringing sanitary reforms into town planning was further reinforced. Immediately, the level of expenditure skyrocketed, unfruitful outcomes of which led to the establishment of improvement trusts in Bombay (1898) and Calcutta (1912). These trusts were given the power to demolish existing informal settlements (especially slums) and build chawls for workers, and develop new housing estates and arterial roads catering to the emerging middle class and prospering elite.

Soon, the first town planning legislation in India, the Bombay Town Planning Act, 1915, came into force on March 6, 1915. The Act primarily provided for the preparation of town planning schemes (TPS) for areas within the jurisdiction of the local authority.

With time, however, the emphasis shifted from using bye-laws and sanitation systems to address these problems to controlling the use of land. At the same time, slum clearance had become the most commonly-used method by financially-constrained local governments in their attempts to beautify the city, pushing the poor to overcrowded fringe areas.

Simultaneously, large residential areas were developed in an attempt to make cities ‘sanitary’ by spending huge amounts of public finance to build the capital infrastructure of drainage and sewerage system. These practices of colonial India led to the adoption of slum clearance policies post-Independence, in late the 1950s, as an approach towards city beautification.


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Sanitation a ‘national agenda’ post partition

With Jawaharlal Nehru pivoting urban centres as engines of economic growth post- Independence, cities witnessed a large influx of migrants from all parts of the country before and after the Partition. Cities and their local governments fractured under the population pressure. A failure to provide the universal service obligation of adequate sanitation forced more people to defecate in the open.

By the time the First Five-Year Plan was rolled out, sanitation became a national agenda, but emphasis was given to rural India and sanitation was just a sub-section of the water supply chapter. From the second Five-Year Plan, funding was allocated for the development and strengthening of the state public health engineering departments. It was only in the Eighth Five-Year Plan (1992-97) that a national attitude was developed towards urban water supply and sanitation.

A decade later, the National Urban Sanitation Policy was rolled out in 2008, encompassing a spectrum of stakeholders involved in providing sanitation to India’s urban residents. Yet, urban sanitation was drowning amidst the attention given to water supply projects. Simultaneously, gaps in the urban sanitation chain grew.

Access to latrines not enough

Statistical figures gathered from Census of India highlight that in the past four census counts, the percentage access to latrine facilities has improved. On comparing the percentages to actual urban population, which is increasing at a much faster rate with a higher base factor than the access to a latrine facility, we find that the sanitation deprivation has not really improved significantly.

Not to forget, the access to latrine parameter is inclusive of the latrines that are accessible outside household premises — community toilets, mobile toilets and such other unkempt facilities. Based on survey findings conducted between 2013 to 2018, it was found on ground that in Delhi, despite access to a latrine facility in bastis, three out of every five people defecate in the open at least once a day, and two out of these three persons are women. Mere access to a latrine facility is not an indicator of overcoming sanitation deprivation and abolishing open defecation.

‘Swachh Bharat’ a pipe dream

In 2014, the central government identified open defecation as a priority issue across India, not just in villages, and launched a mission to eradicate it by 2019. For the first time in independent India’s history, sanitation became a national priority and subject of conversation across society.

Launched with great hope and rigour, the Swachh Bharat Mission, however, has not been able to fully achieve its agenda. Reports available in public forums and field work explicitly highlight that it is producing the same results as that of the past. Toilets and infrastructure created are being misused for other purposes or lying unused. Reasons vary from social attitudes to financial burden and mismatched priorities. But in a country where people are killed while defecating in the open, the mission, often criticised as being a campaigning gimmick, has thrust sanitation to the status of ‘national priority.’

Sanitation deprivation and open defecation are not linear concepts, and the solution is not as simple as providing toilets and water to clean them. The history of sanitation, especially urban sanitation, is more complicated and deep-rooted than its modern-day pipelines, with spatial manifestation of differentiation.

(The author is a fellow at the United Nations’ SDSN Youth.)