By Ayushi Nagalia
India being a huge country with an enormous population has had its fair amount of representation in Hollywood or any other filmmaking industry. A vast number of celebrities visit India every year. Many foreign bloggers and travelers visit and document India in different written and multimedia forms. Numerous photographers visit India for its rich culture and the scope of getting a diverse variety of shots here. No matter the diversity, all these tourists, travelers and other professionals always have one thing in common in their documentation of our culturally rich country and it is the pictures, videos, and stories of the uncleanliness prevailing in our country. Dumping of garbage in the open and open-defecation is something that constantly ruins the reputation of our country. Not only does it constantly taint the reputation and beauty of our nation, but is a constant threat to the well-being of people living here. Unsanitary conditions, polluted roads, and infrastructure lead to contaminated air, water and land. Due to the unrestricted exploitation of natural resources and unsound agricultural practices prevailing in our country, not only have there been devastating effects on the environment, but also on people’s health and quality of life. Women and children have been primarily affected.
The Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi realized that the nation cannot succeed without a certain level of sanitation and cleanliness. The need for clean water to drink, air to breathe and soil to sow vegetables in, is so crucial that without them a country like India, whose economy largely relies on tourism and cultivation of spices, can never bloom without putting sanitation in a clear light. As a result, the Government of India launched a campaign called the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on 2nd of October, 2014 at Rajghat, New Delhi. The campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims at cleaning the streets, infrastructure, and roads of India’s 4,041 statuary towns and cities. Since open-defecation is a major issue in India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has its major emphasis on the construction of toilets throughout India; especially in the remote and backward villages, where even a century old people had never seen toilets in their entire life.
Even though Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a purely socio-democratic campaign aiming specifically at sustainable development of the nation through the promotion of sanitation and fighting open-defecation, to a great extent it has become a campaign that has in a direct or an indirect fashion come better the conditions of women in the society. Even though cleanliness has nothing to do with patriarchy or gender oppression, due to some stereotypical roles of a woman in a household and the society, there are a few issues that, unfortunately, women have come to accept as normal. Until recently, women had few choices regarding their own lifestyle and fewer opportunities to change unsatisfactory domestic or work conditions and improve their families’ and their own health. Women are vulnerable to health difficulties and hazards because of their roles as home-managers, economic providers, and their role in reproduction. With the help of the development to be witnessed by the nation as a result of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, these very silent issues faced by the women would gradually disappear or at least get less frequent.
There has been an overwhelming number of reports and evidence in the past six to seven years that directly point towards the fact that environmental contaminations have an adverse effect on the reproductive health of women. Women, especially those who are pregnant and/or are living in marginal suburban or rural areas in a developing country like India, are particularly susceptible to environmental threats. The reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Every step in the reproductive progression can be altered by toxic substances in the environment. These toxic substances increase the risk of abortion, birth defects, fetal growth retardation, and perinatal death. Numerous chemicals pertaining to the Indian environment due to excessive pollution result in such adverse effects on women’s health. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aims at depleting many such toxins from the environment. It is expected that as the campaign proceeds, the levels of Organophosphates and Heavy Metals would decrease considerably from drinking water available in the remotest areas of India. With such toxins out of our environmental system, reproductive problems in women would decrease by at least 24% and child mortality rates would decrease by at least 5%. In rural areas, the supply of clean water solely has been improving the living conditions of women.
The scarcity of clean water in India has been a worrisome issue for many years now. 76 million people in India lack access to water that is safe to drink or even be used for other household purposes. Most of our rivers are polluted and our groundwater is rapidly depleting due to over usage. Amidst all these issues, due to traditional gender roles, women bear the responsibility of securing water for the household, which often means standing in long lines or walking many miles to and from the water source. In rural areas of states with scarce water sources, women have to walk for long distances with empty posts and walk back with those very pots filled with water in order to cook or go about any household chores. Not only do these women have to travel on foot for such long distances, but also have to wait in long lines in order to secure water from a sole source of water. Many a time, due to lack of water supply, these women have to go back home without any water. These women also must dispose of dirty water and human waste and rarely have access to safe or private sanitation facilities. It is these women who benefit the most from Swachh Bharat Abhiyan since the government is thriving to supply clean water to every rural area throughout the country.
As a part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Indian government is aiming to achieve an open defecation free India by the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, i.e. October 2, 2019. Open- defecation has always been a major problem in India where one in ten individuals practices open-defecation. Not only does open defecation lead to numerous deadly diseases like child diarrhea but is also a dangerous practice for women. Net of their socioeconomic status, women who practice open defecation are twice as likely to face sexual violence as women with a household toilet. Qualitative research has linked women’s lack of household sanitation and clean water sources to a heightened fear of sexual violence. In the Indian state of Orissa, a majority of women project fear unwanted sexual encounters such as being watched, indecent exposure, and non-partner sexual violence. Adolescent girls and young women especially those residing in slum regions are sexually victimized while accessing sanitation sources. The government is aiming to achieve the goal of ending the practice of open-defecation by constructing at least nine crore toilets throughout the country by 2019. As of yet, about 3.47 crore toilets have been constructed from urban to rural areas. Over 1.65 lakh villages have already become open-defecation free. For the financial year 2017-18, Swachh Bharat (Rural) received central allocation worth Rs. 13,948 crores, a fair increase from the 10,000 crores allocated in the previous financial year. What is even more worth noting is that women have been looked upon with a sight of priority when it comes to construction of community toilets in rural areas.
Women have been playing a central role in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan because women are central to cleanliness and sanitation. More than anyone, they understand the importance of this. Having or not having a toilet barely affects men. It is no secret that women both on a personal level as well as from the traditional roles society ascribes to them have a huge stake in the Swachh Bharat Mission. This means that it is not surprising that women are taking on and will continue to take on leadership positions in the fight for cleanliness.