The election season is in full swing in Bihar. And amidst all the politicking, deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi has been challenging the opposition to fight the JDU-BJP government on “development issues”.
One developmental project that Sushil Modi and his party boast much about is toilet construction. On its page, the BJP claims to have made Bihar “open defecation free” by building 40,000 toilets and ensuring every household has one. Reality check: open defecation occurs barely 500 meters from Sushil Modi’s residence in Patna.
“Filth is everywhere,” said Pooja Devi, 30, who sat with a group of women near a drain at Ambedkar Bhawan, a housing project near Rajendra Nagar. “The place we go to relieve ourselves is filthy as well. When we sit to defecate in the open, everyone peeks from their buildings. What can we do?”
Up along the drain from where the women sat and chatted, children bathed and played and pigs frolicked in the rotting garbage.
Stretched along a tattered wall above them, a Patna Nagar Nigam board advertising the municipal body’s cleanliness campaign declared in big lettering, “We won’t defecate in the open. We shall make our city number one.”
Ambedkar Bhawan was first built by the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav when he was the chief minister in 1995. It houses about a thousand families, mostly from the Dom and Mushar community.
The Dom are a Dalit community who are marginalised socially, economically and politically. Most people from the community are engaged in sanitation work in the city and in basket-weaving in villages. It’s ironic that the very people who clean the city have to live amid such filth.
Shauki Ram, 70, has lived here for as long as he can remember. “We lived in huts earlier, our women and children slept on the streets outside. When Lalu ji won, he found our condition to be unacceptable and built our home for us. Since then nobody has come to see or hear us. Nothing happened after Lalu ji got this project constructed. Now the walls are crumbling, last year a part of the roof fell down on a girl. We have requested the municipal councillor Pramila Verma many times to get the walls and drains fixed, but nobody listens to us,” Shauki Ram said.
Ambedkar Bhawan’s residents choose a mukhiya, or chief, whose tenure is not fixed. If they feel the chief is failing their duties they replace him. The incumbent chief is Rajendra Ram. “When this project was built, all the facilities were there, but subsequent governments never cared about this place,” he complained. “A common toilet was also built at the time. But the sewer it was connected to filled up, nobody cleaned it. The sewer collapsed. We are poor, how can we build toilets on our own?”
The RJD government constructed about 300 apartments at Ambedkar Bhawan over the course of its 15 years in power, Rajendra Ram said. “Today, a thousand families live in this colony. That’s around two and a half thousand people. But only about 30 houses have toilets, the rest of the people go outside to relieve themselves,” he added. “The men go to the municipal toilets but the women and children defecate in the open. The municipal toilets charge Rs 5 per person, so the poor do not use them.”
The government’s apathy towards the welfare of the people in Ambedkar Bhawan goes beyond sanitation. “In spite of living in Patna, 60 percent of the children from this colony aren't able to study. There is a school where young children go but the teachers don’t come regularly, and when they do they spend most of their time gossiping while children play or roam outside on the streets. Most people are poor so they can’t send their children to private schools,” said Abhimanyu Azad, 40.
Most women were hesitant to speak to a journalist, but a young girl, Rinku Kumari, who studies in class 7, confirmed that most of them had no access to toilets. “There’s no facility. We have to go out and defecate in the open, that too to a dirty place. What can we do? No matter what happens in this place, nobody cares. Even if there is a fire, no one listens. We have to arrange for everything ourselves,” she said.
As Rinku Kumari spoke, a young child came and sat by the drain to defecate. Then another and another.
“It is not just Ambedkar Bhawan, I can show you 30-35 colonies in Patna city alone where people have to defecate in the open. Their conditions are pitiable,” said Sunil Kumar Ram, the chief of the Dom Vikas Samiti, an organisation dedicated to fighting for the rights of the community. “Mangal Talab, Maslampur Haat, Ghai Ghat are some such places. You can see open defecation even behind the Haj Bhawan and outside former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s house.”
Yet, the government insists that the state is open defecation free. Sushil Modi himself, in a speech on Gandhi’s birth anniversary last year, proclaimed the state and the rest of India open defecation free. The Swachh Bharat cleanliness campaign, he claimed, had become the largest people’s movement in the world so much so that it wasn’t uncommon now to see even a poor man building a toilet in his home. He also claimed that India had built over 10 crore toilets in five years to achieve the goal of ending open defecation.
Why is there such a stark disparity between the government’s claims and the lived reality of the people?
“The government does not pay attention to places like this,” Sunil Ram, who lives in Ambedkar Bhawan, said by way of explanation. “People from the backward castes and the extremely backward castes live in this colony. Most of the people are from the Dom community but there are many Mestars and Musahars as well. Maybe that is the reason. Please come and see for yourself, no developmental work has happened here.”
Newslaundry asked the local municipal councillor, Pramila Verma, why the Ambedkar Bhawan lacked functioning toilets even while the state government was celebrating an end to open defecation. Her response was laced with casteist prejudice.
“It is a habit of these people. No matter how much cleanliness you give them, they will be the same,” she replied. “Two toilets with 10 commodes each were constructed using the MLA funds, but these people tore down the door and sold it for liquor. It can’t be built every year, right? The fund isn’t that big. It took me a year to construct one toilet. Every evening after the contractor left, they would leave it dirty. Their psyche is like that.”
As to the dilapidated condition of the housing project, she said, “When the front portion of the house collapsed, the MLA asked them to write an application but nobody gave one. This can’t be handled by the municipal corporation either.”
Abhimanyu Azad was understandably furious when he heard what Verma had said. “We are fond of defecating in public! She is lying. A toilet was indeed constructed here but they used so little sand and cement that it sunk. There was a major scam in that construction project and that's why it broke down. Would we tear down something that was built for our benefit? Are we animals who would like to live in a drain? They also installed a pump for drinking water and that is still intact. Why haven’t we broken it?”
He also rejected the councillor’s claim that they hadn’t given an application about the crumbling building. “We did give them an application,” he said. “And we begged them with folded hands, but nothing happened.”
Sushil Modi’s house is barely 500 meters from Ambedkar Bhawan. And chief minister Nitish Kumar’s residence is not more than 5 km away.
In 2019, when Patna was flooded, the deputy chief minister was quickly rescued, but the people living around his house were left on their own.
“Sushil Modi was rescued by his officers but we were stuck,” said Rajendra Ram, a resident of Ambedkar Bhawan. “The main road was flooded upto my waist and water from drains entered our homes. We didn’t have anything to eat. Our children were wailing but nobody came to check on us. Only Pappu Yadav came on a tractor to distribute a few things. That saved us. Sushil Modi passes by every day but he never even turns to look at us. There’s muck everywhere around us. It is impossible to miss it, but he has closed his eyes. Maybe they are waiting for a big mishap to occur before they wake up.”
Abhimanyu Azad was even more scathing. “These politicians don’t consider us human,” he said. “If they did, we would not have been forced to live like this.”
One reason for the apathy, he suspected, was that they belonged to the Dalit community. “That is why we are discriminated against,” he said. The other was that the community did not have enough votes to be considered a vote bank in their constituency.
Rajendra Ram echoed this view. “For 15 years now, Arun Sinha of the BJP has been our MLA. Shatrughan Sinha was our MP for ten years and now Ravi Shankar Prasad is our MP. But none of them has ever come to check on us. They come asking for votes at the time of the election, sweet talk us, but never come back to look at us.”
He continued, “There’s uncultivated land behind our colony. We have requested several times for a playground to be built there for our children. But such facilities are only given to the children of big people, never to us. Street lights have been installed everywhere except outside our homes. Is it because we are Dalit?”
Not surprisingly then, the people of Ambedkar Bhawan aren’t particularly excited about the election. They vote in the Kumhrar Assembly constituency which Arun Sinha of the BJP is seeking to win for the fourth consecutive term. Kumhrar is part of the Patna Sahib parliamentary seat which was held by Shatrughan Sinha for the BJP for a decade until 2019, when it was won by Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Caste is widely considered to be the most important factor in Bihar’s politics, with candidates usually decided by local caste equations.
According to Sunil Kumar Ram, the Dom community and its seven subcastes form about four percent of Bihar’s population, but they do not carry the same political heft as the Musahar community which has a similar population and is allied with the JDU-BJP in this election.
Why is this so? Sunil Ram pointed out that unlike the Musahar community, which has a prominent leader in Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Dom community lacked political leadership. “The biggest reason for the apathy towards our community is the absence of political leadership,” he said. “There is not one representative of the Dom community in either the parliament or the two houses of the Bihar Assembly. Ramdhani Ram was a Rajya Sabha MP in Indira Gandhi’s time. He was a member of the Congress. After him, not one person from this community has reached any legislature.
Is there nobody from the Dom community in Bihar, or elsewhere in the country, who can reach these places now?”
Sunil Ram rued that “nobody is ready to lead this community”. “In this Bihar election, neither the NDA nor the opposition has given a ticket to a member of the Dom community.”
Is it any wonder then, he asked, that despite trying for two years to get the government to address the dire situation at Ambedkar Bhawan, “no one is listening”?
A version of this report was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.
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