It's June 16; the morning sun has just begun creeping over the horizon of Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, an illegal settlement in Rajasthan’s Pratapgarh district. Three municipal council employees and Nagar Parishad Com missioner Ashok Jain have their eyes on people coming out of the shanties. They start clicking photographs as soon as four women squat down to perform the morning ablution in an open field. Or, at least, that’s what the women thought who start screaming for help as the officials approach the field. Zafar Hussain, a social activist in his mid-40s who happened to be in the nearby area, rushes to their rescue. The officials do not like the interference, and a violent altercation ensues. Hours later, Hussain is declared dead. He is survived by two daughters and wife Rasheeda (shown in picture).
Down To Earth (DTE) visited the colony two weeks after the incident. Anger was still palpable among the residents despite an eerie silence prevailing over the region. Death certificate of Hussain states he died from “cardiovascular failure”. But Ajay Saxena, an advocate fighting for justice for Hussain’s family, claims, “The officials brutally kicked, punched and beat Zafar, which caused his death.” People from the colony say Hussain fell victim to the aggressive and unethical ways officials are following to bag open defecation-free (ODF) status for the district under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), a flagship programme of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre which is directly monitored by the prime minister. The residents also say that for the SBM officials, photographing people in objectionable position is the simplest way to compel them to change their morning routine.
Zahreena, an eye witness to the clash between Hussain and the officials, says, “Earlier this month, Chachaji wrote a memorandum to the Nagar Parishad opposing public shaming of women who defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Now, no one would dare speak up for our dignity.”
“Defecating in the open is not a matter of choice for us,” says Dhaku Bai, another resident. “People here either work as daily wage labourers or at local shops. How can toilet construction cross someone’s mind who struggles to make ends meet, lives in a dilapidated hut with no land of his own and depends on leaking municipal pipe lines for water,” asks Bai. In March this year, three families in Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, including Bai’s, volunteered to build toilets under SBM. “So far, I have spent Rs 18,000, but received Rs 8,000 of the promised Rs 12,000. I’ll be able to complete it only after I get the remaining money,” she says.
Though the government constructed a community toilet in the colony three years ago, Bai says it is much cleaner and safer to defecate in the open than using those. Her resentment is not unfounded. The community toilet, meant to cater to the 3,000 people of Mehtab Shah Kachhi Basti, has only 10 units. In the absence of water supply, the toilets remain soiled and clogged.
District magistrate Neha Giri, whose office is barely 2 km from the settlement, says work under SBM is yet to begin in a full-fledged manner in the district as it was formed in 2008. “We are waiting for the baseline survey to be completed,” she says.
Throughout her conversation with DTE, Giri remained tight-lipped about what led to Hussain’s death and what the officials were doing near the colony in the wee hours. Since no arrest was made till the magazine went to press, DTE cannot confirm the allegations.
The incident nevertheless highlights that of late, the foot soldiers of SBM, right from the district administration to municipal and panchayat functionaries, are using coercive tactics to make people abandon their age-old habit and embrace new ethos. A close analysis of the measures reminds one of what India witnessed during the 1975 Emergency—to embark on an ambitious population control programme some 6.2 million poor Indian men were forcefully sterilised in just a year; 2,000 died from botched operations.