The class of cleanliness: body, infrastructure, and open defecation in the city

The Right to Sanitation in India
Critical Perspectives
Book Excerpt 

[From the essay 'The Politics of Open Defecation: Informality, Body, and Infrastructure in Mumbai' by Renu Desai , Colin McFarlane , and Stephen Graham]

Defecation is a bodily process that is crucial to life itself. Yet, there has been scant research on open defecation despite its widespread prevalence in many cities in the global South. Perhaps one reason for this is that open defecation is perceived to be at complete odds with the modern city. Investigations by development practitioners, journalists, and scholars have of course directed attention to practices of open defecation. In this moment of a ‘sanitation crisis’ and urgency to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), their writings focus on the dire consequences of these practices for health, women’s dignity and safety, the environment, the economy, and so forth, and call for appropriate sanitation interventions in terms of technology, cultural and social norms, and the differentiated needs of men, women, and children.9 However, the relationships between open defecation, the body, and infrastructure in the city remain under-researched and under-theorized in these investigations. Debates around the body, sanitation, filth, and infrastructure are crucial for exploring these relationships.

Scholars have argued, for instance, that the exclusion of what is considered filth, particularly human excreta, and the distancing from bodily substances and odours has been central to the ways in which modern urban citizens define themselves.10 Architecture, urban planning, public health initiatives, and the regulation of public spaces have played a key role in this quest to protect the human senses from contact with bodily wastes, normalizing practices through which bodily functions like defecation are carried out, and bodily wastes like shit are disposed. Thus, shit was increasingly relegated to the private sphere,11 and then was increasingly brought under public management. Attitudes to filth and cleanliness, and the regulation of bodily functions and bodily wastes have thus been central to the shaping of the modern city. Yet, the bourgeois regulation of filth and cleanliness not only served to carry out vast urban improvements, but also served as justification for the surveillance and control of the poor, and the denigration of certain groups.12

Unsanitary conditions and disease were associated with poverty, crime, and immorality in 19th- and early 20th-century European and American cities, justifying sanitary reforms that penetrated the daily lives of the poor and working classes. In the colonies, unsanitary conditions and disease were associated with spaces of the ‘native’, particularly the inner cities, and with disloyalty and potential rebellion.13

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Orientalist binaries separating clean and sanitary Europeans from unclean, colonial Others usually led to colonial interventions in sanitation that were imposed from above through demolition, policing, coercion, and punishment. These were often met with local resistance based on indigenous views of health and urban life.14 Ultimately, with military and economic concerns taking precedence over social welfare in the colonies, colonial cities developed as fragmented and polarized landscapes. Spacious residential quarters with modern infrastructure networks were developed for Europeans and their Indian elite and upper middle-class collaborators. On the other hand, ‘native’ inner cities and poorer areas remained devoid of sanitary improvements.15 Indian elites, even when involved in local government, also failed to prioritize city-wide sanitation provision.16 After Independence, these cities became sites of new kinds of modernist projects, and these fragmentations and polarizations increasingly evolved into a formal/informal divide. Sanitation divides became more entrenched in cities like Mumbai, as the impetus for widespread sanitary reform dissipated with urban middle classes increasingly able to protect themselves from disease by monopolizing state-provided urban services and access to modern medicine.17

Chakrabarty argues that while the attempts by colonial governments and elites to regulate and create orderly public spaces were rooted in discourses of the ‘natives’ being indifferent to filth in public spaces and using these spaces in inappropriate ways, nationalist projects of social reform also sought to create clean and orderly public spaces, albeit through transformed discourses that appealed to civic consciousness and citizen-like behaviour.18 People’s practices have, however, continually challenged the realization of such projects in Indian cities. With regard to practices of open defecation, for the Indian middle classes and elites, these have increasingly come to mark the presence of the rural and the non-modern in the contemporary Indian city. Those who defecate in the open are often cast as uncivilized folk who need to be coercively disciplined into using toilets. These othering discourses in the contemporary Indian city have a powerful echo of the colonial, which closes off alternate possibilities of understanding people’s sanitation practices, as well as sustains and creates new fragmentations and polarizations in the urban landscape.

Chakrabarty19 —and following him Kaviraj20 —have brought a postcolonial reading to the presence of filth in public spaces in India. They contrast the conception of public space based on modernist desires, civic consciousness, and public order with the notion of the ‘outside’ held historically in India. This ‘outside’ was the opposite not of the ‘private’ but of the ‘inside’ and was viewed as a space that carried fears of miscegenation and dangers of offence, especially for people accustomed to living in a caste society. While care and attention to cleanliness might be lavished upon the home that was the ‘inside’, the street as the ‘outside’ was a space that lacked any association with obligation and ‘did not constitute a different kind of valued space, a civic space with norms and rules of use of its own’.21 This had consequences for behaviour in urban open spaces, and garbage when thrown ‘outside’ was understood to be thrown over a conceptual boundary. Kaviraj further argues that this historical conception of the inside/outside mapped onto the European modernist conception of private/public to produce a peculiar configuration of the modern, which moreover varied across classes as well.22 For the poor and destitute, ‘public’ gradually came to mean that which is not private; spaces from which they cannot be excluded by somebody’s right to property; an ‘outside’ that is a matter not of collective pride but of desperate uses, sanctioned by the state through ‘a curious mixture of paternalism, obligation of the powerful to care for the destitute, and democracy’.23 In this analysis, the use of public space in Indian cities and the presence of filth in them are understood as a reflection of the ‘plebianisation of public space’,24 and the different conceptual maps of private/ public among the rich and poor in Indian cities chart a very different practice of modernity. It is striking too that in the contemporary period, while the logics and imaginaries may well be different, there are legacies of this in the casting out of many sites, groups, and practices of the urban poor as unsanitary, and in need of punitive treatment.25

The postcolonial analyses described earlier are useful in alerting us to different notions of public and private, of filth in public spaces, and of what might be considered an ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ use of public space. However, they also have serious limitations, particularly when they include shit in their discussion of filth and open defecation as one among many uses of public space by the poor. This fails to consider the nature of embodiment in practices of defecation that differentiates it from other ‘private’ uses of ‘public’ space by the poor. These analyses also suggest that the poor have a fixed conceptual map of public/private, and a greater tolerance to filth, and while this is considered to be a consequence of their impoverished circumstances, there is nonetheless a tendency not to connect open defecation to the politics of urban informality, infra-structure, and political economy. In the process, they also essentialize notions of filth held by the poor, and ignore the efforts often made by them to create sanitary environments. We argue that to understand open defecation, a focused analysis of the relationships of the body to the diverse materialities of sanitation infrastructure in the unequal city is imperative.

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9. For example, Meera Bapat and Indu Agarwal, ‘Our Needs, Our Priorities: Women and Men from the Slums in Mumbai and Pune Talk about Their Needs for Water and Sanitation’, (2003) 15(2) Environment & Urbanization 71; Sheridan Bartlett, ‘Water, Sanitation and Urban Children: The Need to Go Beyond “Improved” Provision’, (2003) 15(2) Environment & Urbanization 57; Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis (Earthscan, 2008); Rose George, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste (Portobello Books, 2008); Sarah Jewitt, ‘Geographies of Shit: Spatial and Temporal Variations in Attitudes towards Human Waste’, (2011) 35(5) Progress in Human Geography 608.

10. William A. Cohen, ‘Introduction: Locating Filth’, in William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson (eds), Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2005). See also David S. Barnes, ‘Confronting Sensory Crisis in the Great Stinks of London and Paris’, in William A. Cohen and Ryan Johnson (eds), Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Alain Corbin, Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (M.L. Kochan trans., Harvard University Press, 1986); Dominique Laporte, The History of Shit (N. Benabid and R. El-Khoury trans., MIT Press, 2000).

11. Laporte (n 10).

12. Cohen (n 10).

13. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze’, (1992) XXVII (10–11) Economic & Political Weekly 541.

14. Jyoti Hosagrahar, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism (Routledge, 2005); Colin McFarlane, ‘Governing the Contaminated City: Infrastructure and Sanitation in Colonial and Post-colonial Bombay’, (2008) 32(2) International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 415.

15. Susan E. Chaplin, The Politics of Sanitation in India: Cities, Services and the State (Orient BlackSwan, 2011); William J. Glover, Making Lahore Modern: Constructing and Imagining A Colonial City (University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Hosagrahar (n 14).

16. Chaplin (n 15).

17. Susan Chaplin, ‘Cities, Sewers and Poverty: India’s Politics of Sanitation’, (1999) 11(1) Environment & Urbanization 145.

18. Chakrabarty (n 13).

19. Chakrabarty (n 13).

20. Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘Filth and the Public Sphere: Concepts and Practices about Space in Calcutta’, (1997) 10(1) Public Culture 83.

21. Kaviraj (n 20), 98.

22. We do not think that Chakrabarty and Kaviraj mean this as an argument about cultural specificity. It is widely known that people threw garbage and emptied chamber pots on the streets in Europe and America until the 18th–19th century. However, while notions of ‘public space’ linked to a bourgeois notion of ‘civic consciousness’ became hegemonic in shaping the use of streets and open urban spaces in Europe and America (with indoor plumbing, city-wide sanitation systems, and so on, playing a role in this), Chakrabarty and Kaviraj seek to show that this was not the case in Indian cities.

23. Kaviraj (n 20), 104–5.

24. Kaviraj (n 20), 108.

25. Baviskar (n 2); Ghertner (n 6); McFarlane (n 14).