Command to clean up or go hungry
New Delhi: Puducherry lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi issued a directive on Saturday saying villages must become free of open defecation by May 31 or lose their right to subsidised rice, prompting food rights activists to allege "dictatorship".
Late at night, Bedi cited "misreading of my intent" and said she was "withholding" the order.
Bedi, who visits rural areas every weekend to interact with people, "saw people defecating in the open and garbage all around" at Mannadipet village on Saturday morning, Raj Bhavan public relations officer J. Kumaran said. "She was disappointed and has issued a directive."
The Narendra Modi government's Swachh Bharat Mission aims at an open-defecation-free India by October 2019, and government officials and staff have often been accused of adopting strong-arm tactics to force people to build toilets.
Over 82 per cent of rural households now have toilets but Puducherry has been a laggard, with 61 per cent household coverage and 23 per cent of its rural habitations free of open defecation.
"It is imperative for the local community to shoulder the onus for the Swachh Bharat Grameen to become a reality. Rice distribution shall therefore be made conditional to the certificate that the village is open-defecation-free and free of strewn garbage and plastics," Bedi's letter to the chief minister had said.
"Accordingly, I have issued directions to the director of civil supplies. A notice to the villages be given for a period of four weeks till 31st May 2018 to make the villages clean."
The state government's order asked the villagers to get the certification from their MLA and the "commissioner of the commune panchayat".
Food rights activist Colin Gonsalves said Bedi "thinks she is Hitler living in a dictatorship". He added that people would be happy to build toilets if the government provided the required support. "People who live in the governor's bungalow do not know what poverty people are living with."
Economist Jean Dreze termed the order "ridiculous" and "symptomatic of the authoritarian tendencies of Swachh Bharat".
Reetika Khera, who teaches economics at IIT Delhi, said Bedi's order violated the National Food Security Act, 2013, which guarantees subsidised food for 75 per cent of the rural population.
"It's not within her powers to issue an order that violates a central law. (Swachh Bharat) is a mere scheme to encourage people to set up toilets," she said.
Kumaran pleaded ignorance about the legal validity of the order.
Leo Heller, UN special rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, had said in his report after an India visit in November that the poor were having their ration cards revoked in some places for failing to build toilets.
Civic officials in Rajasthan's Pratapgarh town had in June 2017 beaten a Muslim man to death when he tried to stop them clicking women defecating in the open - part of a name-and-shame drive.
In Ranchi, civic officials seized the lungis of people defecating in the open, returning them only against written undertakings not to repeat the act.
The following is the clarification issued by Bedi on Saturday night:
Clarification in view of misreading of the intent of my improving the living conditions of the poor in rural areas.
The intention of my direction in linking rural Open Defecation and cleanliness with free rice distribution is NOT To DENY any poor persons of their entitlement, since I have already sanctioned and directed to provide quality food grains to needy families. And the department is already in the process of procurement and distribution.
The communication under comment is an expression of my serious intent and concern about addressing the root causes of health hazards in rural areas and compel performance of community and administrative leadership. To avoid misreading of this intention and in view of the forthcoming commitment made by the UT Government that villages in Puducherry will achieve ODF by June end, I am happy to give them some more time. Therefore I am WITHHOLDING my earlier communications.
Meanwhile the poor and needy families will be provided their entitlement as per the law made by Central Govt and rules framed by UT Govt. We are only compelling performance of the community and administrative leadership without denying or compromising the poor of their entitlement.
I am here to protect the interest of the poor, their food, health and environment the uppermost. And they know it. Which is why I have been visiting the rural areas relentlessly, every weekend, for last two years. Sometimes on their invitation and other times on their need basis. Today was the 155th weekend morning round.