His days start and end with toilets.Jockin Arputham, 68, grassroots activist who has won the Magsaysay and Padma Shri awards, has been leading a struggle for the slum-dwellers’ rights to shelter and sanitation for four decades. He is based in Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, serving as an inspiration for the poorest citizens. Mr. Arputham, together with the movement he heads, the National Slum Dwellers Federation , was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. He speaks toOmar Rashidabout the progress India is making in building toilets, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and other sanitation issues.
What has changed over the four decades you have been working for advancing the rights to shelter and sanitation?
I built my first toilet in Kanpur in 1987. Since then, I have built 1,00,000 seats across the world, 20,000 of them in Mumbai. All the money I collected — five million dollars — I spent on toilets. Besides that, there is a remarkable change in the way people, and also the government, approach sanitation today. They talk about toilets much freely.
You have been arrested more than 50 times for your campaigns, which include hiding dead mice in government buildings to “sensitise” officials to the hard life in slums. How difficult is life for a sanitation activist in India?
I am like some celebrity today. Earlier, I was treated like a filthy criminal … an untouchable. Each time I decide to start a project, I have to run to 10 places to seek “permission.” Even if there is support from officials, it is “inadequate” or to misdirect us. Sanitation workers are easily harassed. We live under constant tension. Unless the barriers for the stakeholders are removed, no sanitation policy will work.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently declared that by 2019, every slum-dweller in Mumbai would have a shelter, with proper health, water, sanitation and educational facilities.
No Prime Minister has had the guts to talk about toilets from the Red Fort. I appreciate him for that. But that is not the end. I ask him, if you are serious, why can’t you do this in one year? Why 2019? This is not rocket science. He is back to the same old “five-year” approach started by Nehru. All we require is a single, simple and independent toilet strategy. The Prime Minister must take it up on a war-footing.
How applicable is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?
The SBA is noteworthy. But it won’t be successful if we merely depend on celebrities, as those the Prime Minister has chosen at present. How many of the nine ambassadors have seen slum garbage or walked into a slum? Symbolisms like the Prime Minister sweeping at a Valmik Basti are okay, but not sufficient. We need to involve the stakeholders and community leadership through consultancy and participation. Go to a small pocket, plan meetings on the field and start work immediately. Mr. Modi should have gone to the slums, taken the inputs of those living there and tried to fulfil their urgent demands.
You are not too optimistic about the SBA?
I am always critical of timelines. Academically, they are good; practically, not so. You start with a backlog and keep changing your goalpost. If you want to work, then start now. You have the power. Where is the start? Show me the core committee. Take steps now, choose five slums in each city and build toilets there on a war-footing. Give us a start. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals shifted from 2015 to 2030. We might face the same situation because our planning is slow.
How practical is an “urgent” approach?
When slums get razed in fire, politicians rush to offer money. Why can’t they show the same urgency in building toilets? And see the small change. Show us a little evidence and we will trust you.
The government’s actions also need to be backed up by a shift in mindset of people — for instance, in controlling open defecation.
Even if I desire privacy, I can’t have it. How can the government blame the people for open defecation? Who enjoys squatting in the open? I can recall the toilets in my town, Kolar Gold Fields [in Karnataka] — two stones with a bucket placed below them and no door. Awareness can come only if you build toilets; not 1,000 metres away, but within 50 metres. I may have good awareness, but even in a “world-class city,” as Mr. Modi plans to portray Mumbai, the sanitation situation is shameful. You have not even planned for simple cleanliness and sanitation.
Your organisation, the National Slum Dwellers Federation, works closely with women and involves them in the sanitation debate.
In households, it is mostly the women who deal with garbage every day and directly. Women’s role is dynamic and relevant to the cleanliness debate. Go to the poorest house in Dharavi, women will be seen mopping the floor and keeping it tidy. We need more women stakeholders. The Prime Minister talks about cleanliness, but where are the women in his project? If you don’t involve women, you are either not creative or don’t understand the issue of cleanliness.