Responding to a United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) preliminary report that is critical of Swachh Bharat Mission, the Union government has dismissed its assertions as “inaccuracies, sweeping generalisations and biases”. The government has also taken exception to the statement of Leo Heller, UNSR on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, on the mission logo — Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses. Calling on the government to incorporate a human rights perspective in its mission, Heller had said that “now is a critical time to replace the lens of those glasses with the human rights lens”.
In his report, Heller has noted that India’s water and sanitation policies and its implementation “lack a clear and holistic human rights-based approach”. Releasing the report on Friday, he said, “Everywhere I went, I saw the logo of the Clean India Mission — Gandhi’s glasses. In its third year of implementation, now is a critical time to replace the lens of those glasses with the human rights lens.”
Heller termed his impression of the Indian government’s handling of water and sanitation schemes, based on his two-week-long site visits across the country and interviews with government officials and civil society organisations, as “largely mixed”.
Heller’s report is particularly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet Swachh Bharat project launched in October 2014. “The Indian government’s emphasis on constructing toilets should not overshadow the focus of drinking water provision for all and it should not involuntarily contribute to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those specific caste-affected groups engaged in manual scavenging, or those who are marginalised such as ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas,” said Heller, who is expected to submit a final report to the UN Human Rights Council at its 39th session in September 2018.
The Union government immediately issued a release describing Heller’s report as one that makes “sweeping judgements which are either factually incorrect, based on incomplete information, or grossly misrepresent the drinking water and sanitation situation on the ground”.
The statement rejected his recommendations, terming them to be “baseless assertions”, and said the Swachh Bharat Mission and rural and urban drinking water programmes “fully conform to the Human Rights Criteria and Principles (as established by the UN system)”.
Heller’s report details how many of the “open defecation-free” certified areas were found to be not de facto open defecation-free, in many cases because the slums or schools didn’t have any functional toilets. The report also thrashes a 2016 and 2017 Quality Council of India report that said that 91 per cent toilets that had been built were being used.
The report has quoted a WaterAid study which suggests “only 33 per cent of toilets were deemed sustainably safe (eliminating risks of contamination in the long term); 35 per cent were safe, but would need major upgrades to remain safe in the long term; and 31 per cent were unsafe, creating immediate health hazards”.
He pointed out how the mission has had “an unintended consequence of the desire to obtain rewards, some aggressive and abusive practices” such as revoking of ration cards, electricity services being cut off in case of overdue energy bills, as also shaming and penalising of those defecating in the open. The report states that provision of water has received less attention in the mission. “This raises serious concerns: in India, unsafe water is responsible for 68 per cent more diarrhoea deaths than unsafe sanitation,” it states.
The government statement dismissed all of these “inaccuracies, sweeping generalisations and biases revealed in the UNSR’s rambling report”.