Policy Engagements and Blogs

ThoughtSpace: Right to Sanitation in India – Critical Perspectives



Listen to the full episode of the CPR podcast, ThoughtSpace (above), featuring Senior Visiting Fellow, Philippe Cullet, about the book, ‘Right to Sanitation: Critical Perspectives’ co-edited by him, Sujith Koonan and Lovleen Bhullar, published by Oxford University Press. The book represents the first effort to conceptually engage with the right to sanitation and its multiple dimensions in India, as well as its broader international and comparative setting. This episode of ThoughtSpace is in collaboration with the Oxford University Press, a department of University of Oxford that furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

An interview with Philippe Cullet, detailing more information about the book and its contents can be read below:

Where would you situate this book in the socio-political landscape?

Sanitation has evinced considerable interest from policy-makers, lawmakers, researchers and even politicians in recent years. Its transformation from a social taboo into a topic of general conversation is evident from the central role of sanitation in recent Bollywood blockbusters, such as Piku (2015), Toilet ek prem katha (2017) and Padman (2018). Toilet ek prem katha is particularly interesting since it directly mirrors the policy framework of the central government that seeks to ensure open defecation free India by 2 October, 2019.

In fact, insofar as policymaking and implementation is concerned, sanitation has emerged from the shadows in the past five years. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has led to the construction of millions of toilets throughout the country. Several states have been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) in the last couple of years. This is a positive development in terms of emphasising the urgency of addressing the sanitation crisis.

This also fits well with various judicial pronouncements since the 1990s where sanitation has been recognised as a fundamental right derived from the constitutional right to life. Yet, ongoing policy initiatives are not linked to a rights perspective, and a statutory framework to transform the promise of the judicially recognised right to sanitation into reality is absent. For the right to sanitation to be realised, its multiple dimensions must be addressed holistically beyond the instrumental mechanism of constructing toilets.

What would you say is the unique contribution of this book?

This book provides the first comprehensive analysis of the diverse dimensions of the right to sanitation. It exposes the limits of the current framework that lacks mechanisms to ensure the realisation of the right to sanitation in urban and rural areas on a universal basis, while ensuring the realisation of other rights, such as the rights to equality, environment, health and water.

How would you summarise the contents of this book?

As mentioned above, this book addresses the various dimensions of the right to sanitation. The realisation of this right is crucial in itself as well as for ensuring the realisation of various other rights, including the rights to environment, health and water. The book examines and analyses the different law and policy initiatives that have been undertaken to address issues that affect the realisation of the right to sanitation. These initiatives include the construction of toilets to address insanitary conditions, the development of sewerage infrastructure and other measures undertaken to control water pollution and to reuse wastewater, and legislative reforms related to the conditions of work of sanitation workers. Further, this book highlights issues that are not new but are yet to be satisfactorily addressed such as manual scavenging and gender equality, explained in more detail further down in this interview.

You mention at the start that the statutory framework for realising the right to sanitation is absent. Does this mean that there is no legal framework for sanitation?

No, the absence of statutory recognition of the right to sanitation does not mean that there is a complete void. There are various legal instruments that address some specific aspects of sanitation but there is no comprehensive sanitation legislation and what exists is not framed around a rights perspective.

In certain cases, there has been a clear legal framework, such as the one calling for the eradication of manual scavenging that has been in existence for decades. Yet, this has not been enough to ensure its complete elimination perhaps because of the deep link between the practice of manual scavenging and caste. In addition, the all too frequent news of sanitation workers dying in the sewers dispels the impression that we are any closer to the elimination of all practices amounting to manual scavenging.

Further, the gender dimension of sanitation has often been instrumentalised in government interventions. For instance, protection of the dignity of women was presented as the primary rationale for construction of toilets in official campaigns for behaviour change until 2017 when sufficient pressure led to a specific acknowledgment that this was problematic in policy documents, hopefully leading to a change on the ground.

Does this book have international and comparative relevance?

Yes, this book has relevance in international and comparative contexts. It will contribute to the ongoing discourse on the right to sanitation at the international level. The conditions, concerns and challenges in India may be similar to situations in other developing and least developed countries. Therefore, the book contributes to reimagining the right to sanitation from the perspective of the global South.

It does so in particular through its mix of conceptual work and grounded research, with a number of the book’s chapters being based on extensive ground-level work in the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

About the editors 

Philippe Cullet, Sujith Koonan and Lovleen Bhullar are the editors of Right to Sanitation in India: Critical Perspectives. Philippe Cullet is Professor of International and Environmental Law at SOAS University of London and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Sujith Koonan teaches at Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. Lovleen Bhullar holds a PhD in law from SOAS University of London, and is associated with Environmental Law Research Society, New Delhi.

The book can be accessed at OUP India, here.

The book can be accessed at OUP global, here.