In her policy advisory role, she has worked for the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi, the World Bank, and the UNDP as Adviser on projects of tertiary education reform, primary education reform, and urban social policies.
She is the author of The Contested Politics of Education Reforms in India: Aligning Opportunities with Interests, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Among her other publications are the following: “From Clients to Citizens: Learning from Brazil Provides an Opportunity to Delhi” in N. Jayaram edited, Social Dynamics of the Urban, Springer, 2017, “Missing Women Leadership in Indian Higher Education”, in Shamika Ravi (edited). Difficult Dialogues: A Compendium of Contemporary Essays on Gender Inequality In India, New Delhi: Brookings India, 2019; and “Global Wars, National Legacies, and State Controls: The Dilemmas of Institutionalism of Public Universities”, in Sudhanshu Bhushan edited The Future of Higher Education in India, Springer, 2019.
Salonee Goel CMC '20 interviewed Dr. Manisha Priyam on November 15th, 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced October 2 that open defecation in rural India has ended. How would you evaluate the success of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM)? What are ways in which the government is qualifying its success?
As far as the discussion is concerned it is really about the fact that he has been endorsed globally by a renowned and reputed agency, the Gates Foundation. People ask about why the Bill Gates Foundation has done this or what evidence they have, but there is no great clarity in the country on this. Secondly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Swachh Bharat Mission has been a huge talking point amongst the electorate. It has been discussed in rural India and also in urban India. In urban India, it is being discussed by the urban poor just as much as it is being discussed by the middle class. Different classes imagine different things from the program. For the poor, SBM has mainly been about the toilets and they have faith that even if the toilets haven’t been given to them yet, they will get it. They see this as clearly associated to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name, and they see this as trust between them and him. As far as the urban middle class is concerned, their understanding of the Swachh Bharat Mission is not the toilets. They believe it is a cleanliness program and they believe that ultimate India can have beautiful cities like in the United States based on the mission.
So you are saying amongst the population in India, attitude towards the mission is largely positive?
In urban Bangalore, in the underprivileged settlements of the poor, people have said that they have got maybe just 2000 rupees out of the 15,000 promised, but they believe the money will come to them, so the legitimacy of the program is very high.
Do you think this trust is well-founded?
It is the trust of the poor, and it is surprising but it is there. I have to accept it is there. The Gates Foundation endorsement is not something that is discussed by the poor but the elections have popularized this sentiment among them because elections come with a lot of advertising. A lot of people have received the promised funds and those that have not, believe that they will eventually as they have received the funds partially. While there are studies out there that are claiming various things about the scheme, there is a far wider belief on the success of the scheme. With the top leadership associating itself with the program, poor people believe that the government is directly engaged in providing, and that is Prime Minister Modi’s major platform. The political messaging about it is 100% there. In doing my own interviews with the urban poor in Bangalore, I have figured out that there have been difficulties in them receiving their allotted money for building the toilets, but two things were clear: firstly, those in the urban areas might not have received the money but in rural areas the money has been distributed and secondly, even if they have only received part of the fund, they believe the rest of the amount will come. It is very clear in this way that the poor believe in the efficacy of the program. Here, the numbers are not being discussed. Modi’s official claim that India has built 11 crore toilets for 60 crore people is not being disputed by the poor themselves. This clearly shows that the political messaging about it has been far stronger than what the program has done in reality. Those that are losing out on the scheme are not a grievance group. They believe that it is only a question of time before they get what they have been promised.
What would you say to the claims of aggressive and abusive practices by overzealous government officials, villagers and community workers in reducing open defecation, including the denial of food rations and electricity to open defecators and the lynching of two Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh?
There are some studies also that are claiming that we are not open defecation free, such as ones by Robert Chambers. I think there are questions there. However, the Prime Minister’s association with this scheme has created a certain legitimacy that doesn’t exist with any other schemes. The real bottlenecks that we have seen on the ground are that in the urban areas, the pits have been built but the municipal last mile delivery has not been there. In that sense there has been some dragging of foot amongst the agency on connecting septic tanks. The second is waste disposal pipelines. People may have toilets but whether the waste is being taken away by the pipeline is not clear. The third is of water supply. There are issues on making the whole thing operational, but the fact that the money is reaching the poor people is what has created the momentum for the poor; that they don’t have to queue up in front of agents or middlemen. There is no talk at all of middlemen involved. I have met with urban poor women from Anjanappa Garden, a settlement of the urban poor in Bangalore, and they said that this is not a grievance. In terms of toilets, there is no clear grievance group.
How significant is the underlying casteism in India’s sanitation problem? Would dealing with the issue involve a dismantling of the caste hierarchy?
The last situation you mentioned of the Dalit children is clearly casteist. The manual scavenging issue still remains, the civic authorities still don’t want to serve the underprivileged caste as easily as they serve the middle classes or the urban rich. The poor construct their own toilets, and they have to manage it on their own. However, it has made the sharp divide in the access to toilets between the rich and the poor much smaller as the poor now have access to far more toilets than before. Because of this, it has become a culturally accepted norm that the poor will have toilets in their homes and no longer have to defecate on the street as they once did. The fact that the Prime Minister is repeatedly endorsing this program has created a certain momentum which is undeniable. Also, the fact that Parameshwar Iyer is a very respected bureaucrat so it is important that he is leading the mission. Even lots of non-government organizations that are not particularly in favor of the government have been engaged in the Swachh Bharat Mission. The voice that could have been critical of the government is much smaller and thinner now. Arguably, there are denials on the ground and there is an asymmetry that money may not have reached people everywhere and that toilets may not be functional.
Latrines use significantly more water than open defecation, and some rain-shadow regions in India are in a major drought. How does SBM plan to cope with this water crisis?
I would say the lack of water is currently the biggest problem. This is a problem to which the government doesn’t have any answers. Drinking water is a problem among the urban underprivileged but many parts of rural India are going without water. Even the hills of Uttarakhand require supplementary support systems, most importantly water, which is not there.
Has this water crisis been addressed by government policy at all?
No. We are hearing of the Jal Shakti Mission and the government is talking about it as a priority but you cannot see what is being done. I have no idea how the government will resolve this water crisis. Everybody thinks that the government will use its magic wand and I am also waiting to see what the government will do because clearly this is a huge issue.
Some studies state that some people with toilets, especially older generations, still choose to defecate outside. How much is India’s toilet crisis one of attitude rather than infrastructure? Does this throw a wrench in the government’s assessment of the problem or is it being sufficiently addressed by SBM?
That may clearly be a cultural issue but among the middle-aged and the younger generations there is clear adaptation to the program and a clear sense of joy that this is a priority of the government. There is an infrastructure lag but those that may still be preferring to do it outside are clearly a small minority. The propaganda around the scheme means that there is a pressure on the local level that you do not have to open defecate but there was no real plan to tackle this issue of attitude. I don’t think it was sufficiently addressed.
Will this claim of India being open defecation free and larger global endorsement allow the government to move away from this issue or is sanitation still a priority of the state?
Sanitation is still a priority. I don’t believe that the government will move away from the issue. The only thing is that critical discussion of the shortcomings and lags of the program is not happening as much as it should be. The primary shortcomings are the fact that the reach is not universal at this point in time, that it is not operational as there are fights about connecting latrines to municipal pipelines and lack of water. Manual scavenging also remains, which is unacceptable. These are the frontier areas where the government scheme needs to work. Building bricks and mortar is easy, applying water is not, so I think that is going to be the first challenge. The second will be to remove manual scavenging and have it all automated.
J. Patrick Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]