Rights groups have backed a United Nations finding that India is abusing people’s rights in a rush to implement a national sanitation program. UN Special Rapporteur Leo Heller criticized India in a Nov. 10 report after a two-week long review of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India mission) conducted at the invitation of the government. The U.N called for inclusion of a human rights "perspective" in the improvement of water and sanitation services. The sanitation drive, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched on Oct. 2, 2014, aims to end open-defecation by Oct. 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. The goal is to ensure the building of 12 million toilets in Indian villages at a projected cost of US$30 billion. The project aims to boost construction of both household and community-owned toilets. However, Heller said the government was using "aggressive and abusive practices" to meet project deadlines. For example, his report said there had been cases of officials cancelling food subsidy cards or cutting electricity to people who did not have a toilet at home. Heller also said that eliminating open defecation should not only be about building toilets. It required education to change behavior as well as a sufficient water supply to facilitate safe, low-cost latrines. His comments came amid media reports
that 60 percent of the toilets the government has built under the project have no proper water supply, making them largely unusable. Heller’s report also stated that the sanitation drive should not violate the rights of manual scavengers, who clear excreta from millions of latrines, or the rights of ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas. The Indian government described Heller’s report as biased and inaccurate. The government had the highest commitment to human rights in general and particularly in the water supply and sanitation sectors, according to an official statement. Rights groups working for manual scavengers said Heller’s report should be an “eye opener” for the government.
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Manual scavengers are from the lowest ebb of the Dalit community, formerly known as untouchables, and they are discriminated at all levels, even barred from entering shops and temples, said activist Bezwada Wilson. Wilson said there had been little effort to introduce suction pump and other technologies so that humans would no longer be needed to clean toilets manually. Activist Ajay Kumar said that just in the national capital, New Delhi, some 70 people have died since 1994 clearing out toilet excreta by hand. Little was done to enforce an official ban on the practice, Kumar told ucanews.com.