How Casteism is preventing the end of Open Defecation in India

Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Virtue has become caste ridden and morality has become caste bound.There is no sympathy to the deserving, no appreciation of the meritorious, no charity to the needy. There is sympathy but not for men of other caste.

These words by BR Ambedkar, the father of our Indian constitution, vividly describe how caste system and casteism has eroded the morality of the Indian masses. One can feel the pain and anguish in Ambedkar’s words for this discriminatory social hierarchical order . Casteism is the major contributors for pervasive open defecation in rural India. Somehow the popular government programme Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (SBM) fails to address the elephant in the room. In fact majority of the people aren’t even aware that SBM is more about open defecation problem, they generally tend to associate it with general cleanliness of the surroundings. But blame should also be equally shared by the politicians and celebrities as they are more seen doing photo-ops holding brooms than taking head-on the main culprit i.e. casteism.


The average open defecation rate is 52.1% in rural India. The national rate doesn’t give the picture of inter state differences in rural open defecation, with Jharkhand (81.3%), Odhisha (73.3%) and Bihar (70%) on higher end of the spectrum. A common argument that runs along political circles is open defecation is due to poverty, as poor people cannot afford to build the toilets. A cursory look to our eastern neighbor Bangladesh tells a completely different story. Bangladesh has nearly half per capita income than India, but has been successful in nearly eliminating open defecation. Even the Sub Saharan African nations have less open defecation levels than India, who are poorer on average. So the poverty argument doesn’t hold true. India share of the world’s open defecation grows each year. By 2012, India accounted for 60 percent of global open defecation. Somehow rest of world has figured the rambaan ilaaz for open defecation problem while Indian elephant is dragging its feet. So lets explore the cruel world of caste system to understand how its acting as roadblock to toilet use in India.

Global Open Defecation Share

Ideas of Purity & Pollution

The hierarchical caste system divides the Hindu society into four varanas; Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vashya, Shudra. The rest of people left out are not even grouped and called as Untouchables. The latter are supposed to do all the menial work of the rest of the varnas including manual scavenging of collecting human faeces and disposing of animal carcass. These forms of work are associated with purity by the higher castes and they avoid any form of social relationships with Dalits. In post colonial era in some parts of India, the untouchables would have to hang a pot around their neck to prevent their spit from falling on ground and, wear a broom around their waist to sweep the ground as they moved so that they don’t pollute it.

In caste system order, cleanliness and purity apply to objects, to situations and also to people.

Ideas about purity and pollution are often used to justify why some castes are ranked higher than others. These arguments come in the way of adoption of toilet pits as the latrine pit has to be manually emptied when it gets filled. People in rural India equate manually emptying of a latrine pit with most degrading form of Dalit labour. The higher castes are unwilling to perform traditionally untouchable work, even as more & more Dalits reject these forms of employment. This has resulted in shortage of labour for manual emptying of the pit, so the higher castes are happy with doing their shit business in the open. The rich ones dig a larger pit so it gets filled in longer time span. This situation is unique to India as poor people in other countries manually empty their own latrine pits but Indian society obsession with ritual purity is compromising with the physical cleanliness. While rest of the world is rapidly eliminating open defecation, India is still dragging its feet which are effecting the health and economy.

Caste System Order

Albatross around Neck

These lines by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen gives a reality check to India’s lopsided development story.

India is islands of California in the seas of Sub-Saharan Africa.

India boasts of being the fastest growing economy but features poorly in the Human Development Index(HDI) ranking 131 out of 188 countries. Major reason for such poor performance in HDI is open defecation. It results in exposure of the germs in the environment which can cause many diseases to humans like diarrheoa, parasitic infections, etc. The prevalence of diseases is resulting in child stunting as diarrheoa and parasites affect the intestines which absorb the nutrients from the food. When young children are growing, their bodies, brains and minds are all developing together. Child stunting leads to lower learning outcomes in the future, which leads to lower intellect in the population and ultimately affecting the economy. Some studies also argue the shorter height of Indian people is result of unhygienic surroundings caused by open defecation. Continuous exposure to diseases limits the height of our population.

Open defecation also contributing to increased inequality in both health and income, with differing exposure among the rich and the poor. In effect perpetuating inequality across generations. Another storm that is in the making is the increased Anti-microbial Resistance as diseases cause people to take antibiotics. This often and reckless use of antibiotics in India could return humanity to long era of infectious diseases. It can been seen open defecation is having a sort of multiplier effect and is becoming a headache for policymakers in India and rest of the world too. Open defecation is not merely a threat to the health of families who do it; open defecation is everybody’s business.

The Weak State

Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (SBM) is fifth in line with latrine construction schemes. It has been given an important appearance with PM Modi personal touch to it. But a close look reveals it represents a continuation of what came before it. Only 3% of the total budget is allocated for changing defecation behaviour associated with casteism. The government is merely building the toilets even when there is nobody to use toilet even if they have one. Also, the power of Indian state is limited, in part because the state lacks the human resources needed for behavioral change and in part because social forces against it are strong. Famous author Gurucharan Das quote sums it up “India is a strong society with a weak state”.

The government should work towards behavioral change as it holds the key to increased toilet use. The clock is ticking fast for India, with the population becoming younger over the years. This could be used as demographic dividend to propel India to prosperity, but open defecation is hanging as an albatross around its neck. An ailing population cannot lead to development and growth of economy. An old adage perfectly sums this up:

When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.