Mangal Ram doesn’t understand why the question. All his 60 years, the answer to where he goes to relieve himself has always been the same, he says: “The jungle”. “I go outside, and the earth takes care of it all.”
Only, the government insists otherwise. In December 2017, Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur, Kondagaon and Dantewada, arguably the worst Maoist-affected districts in the country, with large swathes of land out of government reach, were declared open defecation free (ODF).
On January 4, Param Iyer, Secretary, Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India, even congratulated the Bijapur and Sukma districts for the achievement on Twitter. He had congratulated Dantewada and Kondagaon on December 22.
Mangal Ram says that far from a toilet, he has never seen an official around to try build one.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express indicate that it may hold true for as many as half the villages in two of the districts, which are completely inaccessible to the government. Swachh Bharat Mission data for January 2018 for Bijapur declares 84 of the 169 gram panchayats in the district as “inaccessible”, while the rest have been declared ODF.
In Sukma, 49 of 146 gram panchayats are registered as “inaccessible”. In Dantewada and Kondagaon districts, 30 of 83 and 15 of 99 districts are inaccessible according to data collected by the government in October 2017.
Bijapur District Collector Ayaz Tamboli admits that while the district has been declared ODF, there are many villages where no toilet work is possible. “We have been able to reach 85 gram panchayats and those have been made ODF. It is not easy to implement these programmes in parts which have a heavy Maoist presence,” he says.
Mangal Ram’s own gram panchyat, Pulod, with 60 homes, is located deep inside Bijapur’s forests. He lives there with his wife and five children. The 15-km road linking Pulod to Matwada, on National Highway 63, has been dug up 29 times by alleged Maoist cadres.
Jaigur gram panchayat is 3 km away, on the other side of a rivulet. The bridge over it was destroyed several years ago, and villagers now walk across a thin cement pole to get to the other side. As he balances on the pole, carrying even his cycle, Maso Ram says no one in his village of over 2,000 residents has a toilet.
While Jaigur villagers say no officials have visited them, sarpanch Manoj Arki’s wife Somali claims her husband began the process of building toilets some months ago but got no response. “Humne sabko kaha ki sarkaar keh rahi hai ki toilet banvaana hai. Lekin gaonvalon ne mana kar diya (We told everyone that the government is saying build toilets. But the villagers refused),” she says.
A villager, who doesn’t want to be named, says they want nothing that will disturb the peace. “If we build toilets, the dadalog (Maoists) will get angry and who knows what will happen? The government can do nothing and are only infrequent visitors here.”
In other gram panchayats such as Darbha, the handful of toilets that have been built have led to a financial crisis. A village-level official who did not want to be named says, “Darbha has 300 homes, and we built 11 toilets in houses of those who are in the ward panch. In Bechram village, also in this gram panchayat, we built 30 toilets. But the government isn’t giving us the money now (Rs 12,000 for a toilet) because the officials can’t come to review the work. We have stopped (building more).”
About why these areas were declared ODF, no official is willing to come on record. Says one, “This is a sensitive subject. The state government communicated with the Centre on this, and they were told that it is simply not possible to build toilets for the entire district. But they declared the district ODF anyway. Simply because the promise the Chief Minister made as far back as July 2016 that Chhattisgarh would be declared ODF by 2018 has to be fulfilled.”
An October 23, 2017 letter, written by the Joint Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development Department of the Chhattisgarh government, S L Nayak, addressed to the Managing Director SBA (Chhattisgarh) and marked to Secretary, Drinking Water and Sanitation, Param Iyer, reads, “Swachh Bharat Mission (Grameen) ke antargat Chhattisgarh shasan dwara liye gaye nirnay ke anusar poore Pradesh ko October 2, 2018, tak khule se shauch mukt kiya jana hai. Vam ugravad (LWE) prabhavit kshetra ke jilon se prapt prastav anusar rajya ke nimnaanusar 05 jilon ke 12 vikaskhandon ke 246 gram panchayat aur 917 gram aise hai, jinmein suraksha karanon se pahunch sambhav nahin hone ke karan shauchalaya nirman kar ODF kiya jaana sambhav nahin hai (Under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Rural), the Chhattisgarh government has decided that the state must be made ODF by October 2, 2018. As per information from Left Wing Extremism-affected districts, five districts in 12 blocks, 246 gram panchayats and 917 villages cannot be made ODF, as toilets can’t be built because of security reasons).”
It adds that out of of the 1,467 villages, 917 (or 62 per cent) cannot be accessed. “Therefore, based on the information received in writing from the Collectors and Superintendents Of Police, when the villages apart from these are open defecation free, permission is granted to declare the block/district open defecation free. Approval has been received from the Chief Minister,” says the letter.
Sonali Ghosh, Director, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said in an email response to a questionnaire, “The ODF status of the state excludes some inaccessible/ LWE areas of 5 districts of Chhattisgarh (including Bijapur and Sukma).”