Manish Thakur
Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta


Dr. Manish Thakur, Sociology of Sanitation: Issues and Concerns|


It would be appropriate for any contemporary discussion of the larger societal context of sanitation to begin with a historical mapping of the twin notions of civic consciousness and public space. Historians of colonial India (Chakrabarty 1992; Kaviraj 1997) have indicated the cultural incompatibility of the colonial and the ‘native’ notions of public health and hygiene leading to the latter’s indifference to the related municipal injunctions and governmental expectations. They explain this disjunction in terms of the differing conceptualizations of the private and the public at the two ends of the spectrum. At times, they romanticize the prevalence of filth and garbage in the public sphere as the sign of the poor’s refusal to submit to the demands of colonial modernity. Such refusal gets celebrated as acts of political defiance and also as testimony to the vibrancy of the political society in the country. In other words, they see continuity between the colonial and the post-colonial state and consider official discourses on public health, sanitation and hygiene as part of the complex apparatus of manufacturing citizens out of multitudinous communities.

Be that as it may, there has been no dearth of official discourses, and plans and programmes concerning sanitation. Very often, these sanitation programmes are incentivised through subsidies and grants. Total sanitation campaigns have been underway in most of the states. Yet, they fail to achieve the desired effects. There are structural reasons for that which makes it imperative to bring in the economic status of households and habitations. In parts of Andhra Pradesh, toilets were used for storing grains as they happened to be the best parts of the habitation that the residents had. Besides, there is the impact of general corruption on issues of sanitation as they are perceived less important, and so less likely to raise public eyebrows. In many cases, toilets are just built on paper in active connivance with the state officials and municipal and school authorities, and do not attract much public scrutiny.

Likewise, issues of sanitation are intimately linked with our notions of human dignity. Construction workers across the country may erect huge buildings but their worksite would hardly have any toilet facilities. We pass on our responsibility to the contractors even in places like IIMs. Very few households allow domestic workers to avail of toilet facilities. In fact, some housing societies proscribe the use of such facilities for outsiders like maids, milkwallahs, newspaper-wallahs. We have to fight the deep-seated notion of the differing human worth of different groups of people which get reflected in the facilities for sanitation that they may avail of or are provided with. In sociological jargon, we have to probe the implications of social stratification for an understanding of the complex sociology of sanitation. Sanitation is not merely a function of larger public culture.

And lastly, the sheer untranslatability of ritual cleanliness and purity into everyday practices of hygienic upkeep of public places poses great challenges. The conditions in pilgrim places such as Benaras and dharmashalas are cases in point. Interestingly, in the so-called secular places like universities and colleges, shopping complexes, one finds toilets under lock and key to discourage visitors from using them. At times, even in places where hundreds throng on a regular basis for work, authorities display great insensitivity in having arrangements for toilet facilities. Toilets in some of the village schools are exclusively meant for teachers while students are left to use open spaces in full public view.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. ‘Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze’, Economic and
Political Weekly, 27 (10-11), March-7-14.
Kaviraj, Sudipta. 1997. ‘Filth and Public Sphere’, Public Culture, 10 (1).


Leave a reply