After my Sri Lankan spring break, I slowly made my way back down the east coast of Tamil Nadu for a series of meetings and follow up interviews with NGOs that implemented the projects I’ve been studying over the past several weeks. I first stopped for a night in Mahabalipuram, a quiet town off the ECR (Tamil Nadu’s Highway 1). I stayed at a small guest house with a friendly fanny-pack clad receptionist and colorful hammocks. For breakfast the next morning, I opted for toast in a restaurant that overlooked the beach and found myself suddenly sitting in the center of the Japanese Running Club of Chennai’s celebratory convention. About forty Japanese people flocked to the restaurant to pop open beer bottles (at 8:30 am—maybe not surprising nor unacceptable everywhere, but certainly uncommon in India) and panic with thrilled exclamations over the display of live lobsters. I strayed briefly from the beach and a relaxing hammock to see the cave temples that are well-known in the area, only to be shocked by the heat and turn back to the cool safety of my hammock. One of the most famous sites in Mahabalipuram is the Butter Ball, a giant boulder perched impossibly on another rock that is the thrill of Indian selfies for the area.
Next, I made my way to Auroville, where I met with a Belgian engineer from one of the NGOs that implemented one of the systems I’m studying. Auroville is a city-state-colony-almost cult-like community where people (mostly white Europeans) from many backgrounds elect to live together in a communal, harmonious, peaceful environment. The colony has existed within but separate from India for decades, ever since its “birth” from someone called “The Mother”, who served as the founder and guiding force for the colony’s principles and physical design. The colony has strict rules for residency, and many of the businesses and cafes are owned and operated in a communal, central manner. In most cafes, Aurovillians “pay” by noting their purchases and ID numbers on a piece of paper—some cafes even refuse to accept cash and guests must register with a guest account at the visitor’s center in order to dine.
Most notably, the Matrimandir, a large golden sphere nestled in the middle of a peaceful green park draws visitors from all over the globe who seek to experience its powerful meditation-induced bliss. I wasn’t able to go inside this sphere, since it’s strictly regulated and visitors must be physically present at the visitor’s center to book at least two days in advance.
In many ways, Auroville feels completely different from the rest of its surroundings. If possible, I felt even more like an outsider in Auroville than I normally do in India. While I suddenly was no longer the sole white person roaming around, it felt as though the true Aurovillians could immediately recognize my lack of belonging in their colony, and I was eyed with sort of a disdainful curiosity. I half-expected to hear a voice out of the sky telling me that Big Brother (or should I say, The Mother) was watching me.
Another strange surprise is that many of the cafes and restaurants in Auroville are staffed by white people, whether some of the many volunteers or the elusive permanent residents. I went to a small café to escape blistering heat, and had to remember to close my jaw when a white woman served me French press coffee and a quinoa-vegetable bowl that would make Boulder proud. Many of the Indians who work in the restaurants or own the handicraft shops that dot the roadsides have a similar pseudo-Western flair, that can only be ascribed to the unique place that is Auroville. As with most of India though, this small area that projects peace, bliss, and contentment comes to a jarring halt the moment you step outside of the colony’s formal limits. Almost immediately, the roadsides once again are filled with cows, barefooted women carrying heavy loads in woven baskets on their heads, honking cars and bikes, and heaps of trash fluttering in the breeze.
I headed to the Auroville beach in the evening once the heat waned, expecting a well-maintained picturesque landscape, as the reviews and colony suggest, but was surprised to find large gangs of feral dogs, questionably colored sea water, and massive amounts of trash strewn across the tarred sand. The beach is on the other side of the ECR from Auroville, several kilometers away and removed from the official purview of the colony. A half kilometer of tiny brick houses are packed together leading up to the beach, and the familiar smell of burning plastic hangs in the air. As the sun sets, children and men can be seen actually going for open defecation on the beach, with the ocean as a natural bidet. I found it quite interesting that the colony’s principles don’t extend beyond its borders—the residents seem to not have an investment or much interaction with their “neighbors.” Unity and peace are incomplete without equality.
My meeting with the engineer from Auroville was pleasant. He sent several evasive replies to my email requests for the interview, so I finally employed the increasingly successful tactic of saying I would be in Auroville on a specific date and am very interested to visit the office. I expected to meet a busy man with little patience for my questions, but was surprised by his calm demeanor and willingness to fill my flash drive with pictures of the project.
The highlight of Auroville was my spontaneous decision to rent a motorbike (scooter, really). I was walking in the heat from my hotel to the beach, and in the absence of passing autos, thought I was dying. I walked past a man working on a bike motor, and saw a small handwritten sign advertising motorbike rentals. I inquired and discovered that the bike rental and fuel costs would be 300 rupees for a day ($4.50), less if I rented for longer or used less fuel. Suddenly, I found myself riding away on a scooter, having only handed over my driver’s license as collateral and filling out “paperwork”, which meant writing down my first name and phone number on a torn sticky note. I enjoyed 24 (safe) hours of freedom with the scooter, getting to go to all of the beaches and cafes with French press coffee that I could handle. On my way to return the scooter, the motor suddenly died and I inched along the side of the road until I had to give up and explain in my limited Tamil and his limited English the location of my stranding. His son picked my bags and me up and took us to the bus—I swear his son was no more than twelve years old, judging by the way his friends screamed and snickered when we zoomed past and by the way he mistimed the speed breakers.
From Auroville, I took the bus back up to Chennai to meet with a professor at IIT Madras and bother an NGO for yet another follow up meeting. After a day spent in hot Chennai, I took another bus back down the coast and met up with my research assistant to continue with the community data collection. All of my research occurs in small communities, often slum resettlements, in extremely poor peri-urban settings. I’ve perhaps eluded to the strong community norms that dictate gender roles and daily life. In many of the communities, local leadership—either in the form of a singular elected representative or a group of ten elected male leaders called a panchayat—is the gateway for entrance into the communities and holds hostage all authority and decision-making power for the community. Only rarely will the local leadership be active in community infrastructure projects or responsible for tangible improvements, as the groups often only organize temple festivals and are known to frequently channel government subsidies to their family and friends or simply keep for themselves. The local panchayat leaders are often seen sitting in circles on the pavement, underneath the shade of a withering tree, playing cards and smoking beedis. For some this is merely a break from a grueling schedule of auto driving, fishing, or construction labor. For others, the pastime masks addiction to gambling and drinking and avoiding the human suffering present in their homes and communities. In many of these communities (but not all), strong local leadership coincides with women who lack opportunity and voice. So many of my interviews with women happened only after they called their husband for permission or after I spent several minutes explaining why the women’s perspective was important to me. Throughout the whole process, I’ve wondered what my intern and translator think about the roles of men versus women, and if it’s ever strange or awkward when I ask blunt questions about equality or power or gender. It was nice to hear a glimmer of hope voiced by my intern one day as we walked back to the main road to catch the bus. He has a tendency to put what we learn or see in these communities into perspective for himself by vocally comparing or contrasting their life with the ways of his native village. While his parents still embody very traditional gender and family roles (dad works and is the sole source of family income, mom cooks and cleans, kids get arranged marriages, etc.), their family views and values women as important. Sridhar has been taught from a young age to listen to and respect women, especially their opinions. He told me that he would never dismiss the feelings of a woman as silly, because they’re often the ones who bear the brunt of the difficult life in a village. The men can leave to work or have tea at the bus stand or play cards and chat with their friends, but a woman’s only outlet is often her family or close neighbors and to shut her down at home is unthinkable. I felt encouraged to hear that even in some of the most traditional communities, there are people and families who value men and women equally and as more and more people get cell phones and education, their access to information increases and slowly some of the difficult to accept traditions can be eroded.
The community we studied this week is located in the Nagapattinam district, one of the areas hit the hardest by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Most of the communities were relocated inland from the coastal area, and fishermen communities were torn apart and dislocated far from their livelihoods. In compliance with the caste system and traditions, considering alternative work more suitable for inland or city areas is not an option, so the communities struggle even more than pre-tsunami with have enough money to pay for school fees and regular food on the table. The houses are houses built by NGOs from the massive, but short-lived, influx of foreign (and national) assistance after the tsunami. However, in the government’s push for quick recovery and the chaotic mess of NGOs, houses were constructed quickly and without supervision so nearly every single family suffers from leaking roofs and dangerously cracking concrete walls. In almost all of the relocated communities, houses received toilets as an afterthought, where either a small room was tacked onto the house outside or a few square feet were stolen from an inside room for a toilet. The toilets most commonly lacked treatment entirely or had an inadequate series of concrete rings to line a leach pit, incompatible for high groundwater tables in these coastal areas. Lore has it that a district collector was walking through one of these communities and was horrified at the stench of poorly constructed latrine pits and even more dismayed to learn the pits were contaminating drinking water supplies, so he secured many crores of rupees to guarantee that all of the communities in town panchayats on the Tamil Nadu coast would receive sanitation treatment systems to replace the pit latrines. Although this project occurred after communities were resettled and the chaos of recovery had dissipated, the projects still seem to have been executed in a haphazard way with insufficient planning and even more limited oversight. The coastal communities in Tamil Nadu are known for adherence to tradition, so these people are quite resistant to behavior change and toilet usage and don’t much care to self-organize and maintain a complicated treatment system.
I keep finding myself searching for the success story in the midst of all the failure, likely because I’m too addicted to optimism to survive in a completely dark world. This community we studied in Nagapattinam is not unlike the ones I’ve just described, with a poorly implemented treatment system that’s partially used by community members and largely ignored by the government and implementing NGO. The only difference is that there are a few houses spaced throughout the community who, out of necessity and proximity, have taught themselves about the treatment system and taken it upon themselves to clean the system and remove blockages. Each lane in the community has its own settling tank, where wastewater from five or six households collects in a common tank at the end of the block before being discharged to the treatment system in the center of the community. The houses fight over whose responsibility it is to either pay for or physical remove the blockages and accumulated sludge from the sewer lines and settling tank in their lane. Usually, the responsibility falls upon the last house before the settling tank because people seem to misunderstand that the actions and wastewater from each house cause the problem, and instead blame the person who complains the most. These final houses have no choice, since their children play and sleep feet away from the tanks, so they either must spend hours yelling at their neighbors imploring them to spare a few rupees to call the vacuum truck, or they must fix the problems themselves. The horror is that many of these people are women who manually remove human excreta from the clogged tanks without gloves or other personal protection equipment, causing them awful and frequent health issues. For a few of the lanes, such actions have become unmanageable, so some houses have cut the pipes and converted the sewer registers to makeshift septic tanks. The three households that live nearest to the final collection tank, where all community wastewater eventually goes, have educated themselves how to operate the pump and know the basics for submersible pump repair, although they were not initially assigned to be the system operators and did not receive any formal training or technical assistance from the government or NGO. They run the pump every day because their houses cannot bear the smell otherwise and they are unwilling to risk letting the collection tank overflow, but they have no idea what happens in other lanes and have never considered seeking assistance from the rest of the community because they prefer to keep their heads down and avoid conflict. In another lane, three men pulled the heavy concrete lid off of their settling tank, exposing the rising sludge levels and the barely visible baffles. One of the men, a large, rotund figure, explained to me the progression of wastewater through the system and the purpose of each chamber, citing his practical experience from solving ten years’ worth of problems with the tanks. This particular lane and group of men also have no idea that there is another group of women just a few lanes over who empty the collection tank daily and pull the wastewater from other lanes to the final discharge. The men, however, have come up with their own solution to a poorly designed and managed treatment system and rotate who opens the tank, who holds the handmade rope harness, and who dives into the sewage to clear it out. They do this every six months, and every couple of years they give themselves a gift by calling a private vacuum truck to come and remove the sewage so they don’t have to. Without government or NGO support or a regular collection of a few rupees each month from every household, vacuum trucks charge unmanageably high fees for sludge removal so many communities, lanes, and households (here and across India) cannot afford to adequately maintain their systems. When these families make at best a few dollars a day, they have to resort to manual scavenging. When I was zoning off during a long monologue from one of my interviewees and awaited the translated summary, I calculated how much each of these families makes per year and realized that in nearly all of the communities I’ve studied, the average household income is so low that it would take a healthy laborer almost 70 years to make what I receive for my research assistantship stipend in one year. 70 years. In the best case scenario, most Indians do not have 70 working years. In addition to this, it’s almost always five or ten or fourteen people relying upon that one person’s income—and I just have to support myself. Anyway, what did I say about finding something optimistic to write about?
I accidentally arranged my fieldwork schedule such that we visited eight or nine failed sanitation systems in a row, thus clustering the most mentally challenging places together. I didn’t do this intentionally, but it’s prompted me to spend a lot of time reflecting on the suffering of these communities and pondering the causes and complicity. Pinpointing the origins of poverty may prove impossible, but in many of these communities certain actions by NGOs or government decisions or local leaders seem to often make all the difference. The actions I’m talking about are ones where a decision is made, and life in the community is irreparably altered. A slum clearance board builds 200 new apartments and directs their wastewater to a small community’s sanitation system and the perfectly functional system with the organized group of women becomes a massive pond of stagnant sewage and all the children get malaria and dengue. An NGO decides not to replace the settling tanks and baffled reactor tanks when, during construction, flooding occurred and literally popped the tanks out of the ground causing accelerated material fatigue so now the community watches the wastewater pour out of their system every day during the rainy season and on particularly unlucky days in the dry season. Another NGO pulls out because their international donors changed goals and they no longer have the funds to navigate the complicated and ever-changing government landscape in India, leaving a sanitation system without clear ownership or a plan for operation and maintenance. Another community spends months protesting the construction of a sanitation system because they’ve heard from relatives and friends in other communities how destructive treatment systems can be when sewer lines become blocked and sewage overflows, but in the end the government has all authority and proceeds with the project that becomes every bit as devastating to the community as they feared.
It’s always a bit funny to me when I hear about the efforts put forth for creating awareness in these communities about the terrible health implications resulting from open defecation practices, but then I see countless sanitation systems that have made situations much worse because now human waste is concentrated in the community near the kitchens and children’s play areas instead of being in clustered spots underneath bushes or in fields far away from their homes.
I go back and forth between thinking the development community and the sanitation community are on the right track or just horrifically off-base. Attending conferences with international actors in water, sanitation, and hygiene can be incredibly encouraging when you see self-reflection and failure ownership happening from the tiniest NGO to the largest multilateral aid agencies. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like enough. The development sector (especially in water and sanitation) lacks the level of accountability needed to truly make necessary procedural, organizational, and philosophical shifts in their aims and scope. At best, organizations will use failed projects as case studies to learn from in hopes of avoiding repeated mistakes in the future but very infrequently do organizations go back to rectify their failures—and beyond that, to compensate for the devastation that their project failure has caused. Another worrying side-effect of the sanitation failures is that many of the families are totally unwilling to consider any other sanitation system in the future and adamantly stand by open defecation or the pits they’ve constructed themselves. India already is one of the most difficult countries for sanitation behavior change, and the mounting failure compounds the challenge by providing resistant communities with even more evidence against adopting toilets and treatment systems. What do you do when your choice is to take your young daughter to a field to defecate without privacy in the midst of verbal (and often physical) harassment from men or to have your family continue to use a toilet that overflows daily and gives that same daughter dengue? Ugh.
Many of the NGOs that I study as part of my research are presently doing great work in all sorts of communities across India. Some no longer work in sanitation, realizing that their skillset is in women’s empowerment or municipal solid waste management. Others have moved on to different frontiers of sanitation, like fecal sludge management or promoting the aims of the Swacch Bharat Mission to end open defecation in 2019. Others still work in community-based sanitation, using strategies that have been refined over decades of field work, reflection, and learning. The commonality of all of these NGOs? Every single one has been the lead or supporting organization in at least one sanitation project that ended in complete failure, the type of failure that decreased community quality of life, and not a single one of these organizations has taken tangible steps to make things right for those communities. It’s hard to justify using failed systems for future learning and betterment of the sector (only), when real lives have been impacted and left behind. I understand that sometimes donor goals change leaving hands tied or limited resources can be used more efficiently by steamrolling ahead rather than turning back to a project of the past, but it’s unfathomable to be to consider being an engineer that’s ok with leaving a failed project that means malaria for children and unbearable smells day and night in my wake. But somehow I’ve still bought into this sector, labeling myself as an aspiring development practitioner with lofty goals for change. We have to find a way to weave meaningful accountability into the project process, such that it becomes a pillar of these dynamic systems that can never be forgone, ignored, or separated out. I think about sanitation in India again, and a mountain as large as the tallest Himalayas rises up when thinking about holding these NGOs, and even more importantly, the local, state, and national governments accountable for poor implementations and forgotten failed projects. But humans summited Everest, so can’t be too impossible, right?
I recently finished the book The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, a story about a young man from a small village in north India who rises up against the system and becomes an entrepreneur in Bangalore. Through the eyes of this man, the author illustrates places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. When I was first here in India last summer, I stopped reading another book (Behind the Beautiful Forevers – excellent book, by the way) because it was almost too hard to digest with its brutal honesty of how beauty and complexity and ugliness are so intertwined here. But, now I’ve found that whether fictional or true, books that describe the life of the underworld in India actually help because somehow other people have found the words to process the atrocities and discrepancies that I walk past every day, while still preserving the beauty and personality of India, when words sometimes fail me. The White Tiger uses the relationship between a poor village boy who serves as a driver for a rich family as a way to expose some of the hypocrisies that exist in modern Indian society. At one point, the village boy rises up against his master by (spoiler alert) killing him and stealing seed money for a later successful business, and he reflects on his actions: “But isn’t it likely that everyone who counts in this world, including our prime minister, has killed someone or other on their way to the top? Kill enough people and they will put up bronze statues to you near Parliament House in Delhi—but that is glory and not what I’m after.” I’m not saying this is entirely true, nor just an effect of Indian society alone, but people step on top of each other all the time here, whether it’s out of necessity, greed, or ignorance. I keep wrestling with the strangeness of coming home to an air-conditioned hotel that’s cleaned by a woman who likely lives in a slum community very similar to the ones I visit, or the fact that I rely daily on auto drivers who sometimes make only a couple dollars a day and thank them without ever looking back. I struggle to understand how neighbors in a destitute community can sweep their trash and dirt into each other’s property or can ignore the plight of the house at the end of the lane and leave them alone to go knee-deep into sewage. But I’m not sure what I do that’s any different. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the greater driving force that enables the affluent to stay as such in India is the fierce competition for limited resources in this country or the deliberate ignorance of the difficulty of the underbelly. I read an op-ed in one of the Indian newspapers the day that Trump was inaugurated and I have thought about it every day since: “Yes, we can continue to meet at similar venues in different cities, light candles, sing songs, talk solidarity and oneness…but what happens when we walk out, holding onto our sentiments and shawls, hugging ourselves against the biting chill? Here’s what: we climb into our waiting cars, driven by men who work long hours and need the money to send to their families in the village of their birth. We go home and are served food cooked by people we hire to feed us. Our bathrooms are cleaned, our dogs walked, our clothes washed, our gardens tended…by the poor. They represent the real ‘majority party’ in India. And we do not include them in anything. They know just one religion—poverty. Political pimps exploit them—have been doing so for years. But wait a minute. We exploit them, too. So what ‘inclusion’ are we talking about? Till the day our domestics don’t sit at the table and eat with us. Till the day we don’t ‘allow’ them to use ‘our’ bathrooms. Till the day they are expected to stand and never sit in our presence. Till the day we don’t feel outraged if they believe they can share our sofa…sorry, till the day we transform this blatant inequality and treat our staff as equals, let’s console ourselves with poetry…Donald Trump is not the only villain in the world. All of us are equally guilty.”
I feel like I just wrote the beginning of a five paragraph essay from high school English class. Who have I become.