I own therefore I am


A couple of months back my cousin and I got talking about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It’s a good policy if it can be implemented and Prime Minister Modi is right, having strong, efficient water and sanitation services is a good way to restore dignity to India’s people. Both water and sanitation are also of course essential services and just by that should cover 100% of the country’s population. This was my point. My cousin agreed but raised a question. If in the last few decades of the 19th century, people in England, rich and poor both, could rally the government for water and sanitation services why was it that in India, it takes so much rhetoric and government policy pressure in as late as 2014. Why was it that Indians, regardless of status were willing to spend so much money and energy on marriages and festivals but not on ensuring community or household level sanitation.

Our conversation started increasingly going around what role the sense of entitlement could play in this. By which we both meant whether those without clean water or accessible toilets and sewerage even expect such services, or think that they ought to be provided these services. Whether they felt ‘entitled’ to these services at all.

My experience from the field tells me that most people do understand that these are important services. There have been quite a few awareness raising campaigns in the last decade and these seemed to have worked. But just because they see these as important doesn’t make them automatically feel entitled to them. Many have told me how unfair it is that they don’t have access to clean water or that even where toilets have been made, there is no water connections/source close by. It doesn’t make any sense. This is a frustration for sure, but one among many and not intense enough for strong demands to be made on this front.

Two weeks back, I was in Ajmer launching a World Bank funded survey on water and sanitation in the city. It’s a door-to-door household survey, so our surveyors check with people on what they think about or how they receive certain water and sanitation services. It was the first day of the launch so I accompanied my team of surveyors to ensure they were able to cope.

There were quite a few slums we had to visit as part of the survey. What struck me is how the urban poor have absolutely no sense of entitlement as opposed to other social classes or even some rural communities I have seen. Let me clarify. Among the urban poor, I am specifically referring to those living in non-notified and unauthorized slums. To put it simply non-notified and unauthorized slums are those slums which are not recognized by the State. This means that residents have no claim on any service- water, sanitation, electricity etc.

These are people literally in a no man’s land. They do not own the houses they live in, the utensils are not theirs, nor the clothes, nor anything else. These can be razed, burnt, thrown, taken without any legal implications. Come monsoon, houses get washed away, and then plastic covers and mud houses emerge again out of the slush like sprouting mushrooms. Every monsoon. No sanitation either. So people defecate in the open and there is no way to clean the place either.

When you are in No Man’s Land you can just scream and shout. But it is not your land, live there as you may for a hundred years. In a No Man’s Land you make no demands, because nothing there apart from your life is yours. In a No Man’s Land nothing belongs to you, and nothing possibly can. In this piece of land you are the mercy of others. What can you possibly claim here?

– Sharmila Ray


The image used is from an article in the Hindu Business Line