UN Expert Highlights Lack of Human Rights Perspective in Clean India Mission

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Mission)

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New Delhi/Geneva – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Mission) recently came under a scathing attack for its hypocrisy by a visiting United Nations (UN) expert who called on all levels of the Government of India (GOI) to incorporate a human rights perspective in its national programs on water and sanitation.

At the conclusion of his visit to India at the crucial juncture of the rapid progress towards eliminating open defecation through the Clean India Mission, Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation 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.”

Inaugurated by Modi in 2014, the national Clean India Mission’s primary objective is to eliminate open defecation and encourage toilet usage through the construction of individual and community toilets. In the last 3 years, in rural areas alone, 53 millions toilets have been built, but their usage is low for various reasons including lack of maintenance and gender segregation.

Although the GOI aims to achieve an “Open Defecation Free” India by October 2, 2019, which happens to be the Birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, there is lackadaisical progress in providing clean and potable water to the population of more than a billion.

“Eliminating open defecation is not only about building latrines, but requires adequate methods for behavior change, and sufficient water supply is a pre-requisite for the sustainable and safe use of adequate, low-cost latrines,” the UN expert stressed in his statement on the last day of the visit.

“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 marginalized such as ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that India needed to provide sanitation facilities that were not shared with other households and access to safe and continuous drinking water on premise, in order to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

“To achieve this, considerable efforts will be required, in particular to provide individual households solutions to those who currently rely on community toilets and public taps,” the Special Rapporteur said.

Heller conducted a two-week official visit to India at the invitation of the Government from October 27 to November 10, 2017. He met with representatives of the central, State and local government, as well as members of civil society organizations. During visits to Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal, Heller talked to numerous residents about their access to essential water and sanitation services. The Special Rapporteur will submit a full report of his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in September 2018.

Instead of taking note of the seriousness of the report about lack of drinking water facilities and futility of constructing toilets which are not put into use, the GOI in a statement called special rapporteur’s remarks as a ”rambling report,” which was replete with “inaccuracies, sweeping generalizations and biases.” The GOI statement further cited the remarks as having, “deplored the serious insensitivity towards the Father of our Nation.” Without addressing the issues raised, the GOI pointed that Gandhiji’s glasses, the unique logo of the Swachh Bharat Mission, epitomize core human rights principles.

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