There are different dimensions to understand the whole world of sanitation
Sanitation refers to the safe management of human excreta and grey-water, the principles and practices relating to the collection, removal and disposal of human excreta, refuse and wastewater, and the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of waste and maintenance of hygienic conditions. Hence, it includes hardware (facilities) and software (rules, regulations, hygiene). Sanitation facility refers to infrastructure for the disposal or treatment of waste. It is a system of the combination of technologies for safe collection, transport, treatment or disposal of human waste. On the other hand, there are specific norms, policies, rules and regulations and hygiene practices related to the whole process of sanitation.
The main objectives of sanitation are, to protect and promote health; and to protect the environment against pollution. There are different dimensions to understand the whole world of sanitation. In a specific sense sanitation is the process of managing with the human excreta; however, in a broader sense, the term encapsulates all the environmental aspects around us that are detrimental to human life, if not taken care of.
1.Health and environmental aspect.
2.Technological and operational aspect.
3.Economic and financial aspect.
4.Institutional and political aspect.
5.Social, cultural and gender aspects of sanitation.
The first four in the list account for the objective factors; while the last, the subjective element in the understanding of sanitation. Hence, the understanding of sanitation varies across the cultures and societies. This has led to misunderstanding and also discrimination of human beings in relation to the objects and process of sanitation. India suffers the most in this respect. This paper tries to elaborate the subjective elements of sanitation, the metaphysical aspects of the cultural items, the state of orientation, socialisation and domination within the culture.
We may consider the sanitation criteria under two categories as objective criteria and subjective criteria. The objective criteria, though complex and in multiple applicability, is realistic, scientific, observable and measurable. The objective criteria may be viewed under two categories. The normative criteria - availability, accessibility, quality/safety, affordability, acceptability and the cross-cutting criteria - non-discrimination, participation, accountability, impact and sustainability. However, the subjective criteria are very difficult to measure or predict. They are rooted in the culture and the social upbringing.
Socio-cultural bearing on sanitation
Culture is the particular knowledge, beliefs, and understanding of art, law, morals, customs, and other skills and habits that a person acquires as a member of a given society. Beyond their individual differences, the members of a group or a society have particular ways of thinking and behaving, and will react to situations in similar ways. Culture is also an instrument; a tool by which we assign meaning to the reality around us and to the events that happen to us.
In our day to day life, everything is defined socially and culturally. People and groups interacting in a social system create concepts or mental representations of each other’s actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. In the process, the meaning is embedded in society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed. We not only construct our own society but we also accept it as it is, because others have created it before us.
In this context the whole reality of sanitation, whether a concept, understanding or as a practice is socially and culturally constructed. Its criteria are relevant and interpreted in a given social structure. Nourishment to thought comes from the cultural roots, from the social milieu where the person is (born and) brought up. In the west there is an aesthetic sense in designing toilet articles; however, there is some detest in India. Any person or caste, or anything that is associated with the toilet is considered dirty or polluting. Sanitation systems, even when they are properly designed, may not be appropriate when social and cultural factors affecting sanitation and hygienic practices of the community members are not considered.
I would like to focus on three important aspects in sanitation which are solely conditioned by the cultural context, especially in India; open defecation, gender element in sanitation and caste stigmatisation.
In many rural areas, the practice of open defecation is ritualised and bound in tradition. The behaviour and attitudes of the ethnic groups resist the use of latrines. Open defecation is related to factors specific to the culture of the ethnolinguistic group that practises it. It is not the scarcity of water or lack of access to toilets that pushes people to open defecation. Some claim that the concept itself is alien to many. While some choose to use the fields because toilets close to the vicinity of the house are considered to be polluting, others do not use it because the eventual cleaning of the latrines is perceived to be ritually degrading. Since emptying one’s own latrine pit is socially unacceptable, as it is something they believe only an outcast can do, households tend to use a latrine only for emergencies – when someone is too weak (woman, old and children) or sick to go out in the open.
Manual Scavenging and gender
The manual scavenging still exists till date despite being banned under the constitution via various legislations. As per the 2011 census data, it exists in all states except for the states of Goa, Sikkim and the UTs of Chandigarh and Lakshadweep. The 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census lists, 1,68,068 households as engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. Surveys have revealed that 93.96 per cent of the manual scavengers in the country are women. They become vulnerable to being women, for being a Dalit, and for being a manual scavenger. The girl child faces discrimination at all levels and is usually compelled to take up the occupation once married.
In a modern context, the availability and accessibility of sanitation to girls and women is a major concern. When it comes to school going, helping girls and female teachers to access safe water and sanitation is very important. Lack of sanitation, especially in rural areas, causes many girls to fall behind and even drop out. Hence, sanitation crisis is detrimental not only to women’s health but also to education, dignity, community status, and overall well-being. Most women without access to basic sanitation, such as a latrine, must wait for nightfall and an empty field in order to defecate in private. Waiting so long to defecate leads to increased chances for urinary tract infections, chronic constipation, and psychological stress. Many women who are going out alone at night are also at risk of physical and sexual assault.
‘Where India Goes’, a book by Coffey and Spears comes up with new insights on why the toilet has remained an incomplete solution to poor sanitation. The prevalence of open defecation here is not explained by under-development or poverty; nor is it a matter of education levels or governance, access to latrines, availability of water or quality of available toilets. Poor sanitation persists in rural India because of unique social forces, in particular, caste. The lack of privacy due to inadequate and sometimes non-existent sanitation access translates into far more damaging consequences, with women and young girls becoming ‘prisoners of daylight’. Due to privacy concerns and the shame of open defecation, many women are forced to wait until night-fall till they are able to relieve themselves.
Sanitation in India cannot be separated from the ideology of caste. Through the rigid caste system, a certain social stratum, i.e. the Dalits are forced to such inhumane jobs as cleaning (dry) latrines with their bare hands. Their occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean and perpetuates widespread discrimination. Further, very strong stigmata are attached to those dealing with human excreta. Indian society has a unique composition where the scavenger is a scavenger by birth. They face discrimination and are considered fit only for the most polluting labour, that is to manually dispose of human excrement, manual scavenging.
The caste system is something absent in all the better performing countries in South Asia as compared to India. In developed countries, manhole workers are provided with proper safety equipment before they descend into the gutter. On the contrary, Indian sanitation workers wear loincloths or shorts. Handling human excreta is not voluntary employment, but a form of slavery sanctioned and imposed through an exploitative and inhuman caste system.
Adequate and healthy sanitation system is a necessary condition in India. Planning, measures and several strategies are deployed to improve the sanitation condition in India. Growth in science and technology, democratic policies, health and sanitation requirements have responded to the objective criteria of sanitation. However, it is a greater challenge to understand the subjective criteria in sanitation. Sanitation in India is socially constructed, especially in terms of concepts like, clean and pollution. When it relates to sanitation practices and management of human waste, the element of caste and gender are the main determinants. Mere sanitation policies and technological innovations will not solve the problem of sanitation in India. It requires awareness and sensitization on ethnic and gender issues. In other words, we need to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole concept of sanitation how it is explained and understood in Indian caste-ridden society. Thanks to Sulabh and Dr Pathak for initiating practical steps in building a new sanitation culture, beyond caste, region and religion, in ‘Action Sociology’.
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved