Are Gujarat's 'toilet politics' democratic?

In this September 22, 2014, photo schoolchildren talk in front of a poster bearing a quote from PM Narendra Modi in Delhi. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made abolishing open defecation a top priority of his government

Is banning a person from contesting for public office if he or she does not have a toilet at home a good idea?

India's western state of Gujarat certainly believes so. Earlier this week, the state's legislators passed a bill which makes it mandatory for candidates to have toilets in their homes to qualify for contesting elections to local municipalities and village councils. Existing elected members will also have to declare within six months that they have toilets at home, failing which they will face disqualification.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who ruled Gujarat for over a decade before he swept to power in Delhi in May, has made abolishing open defecation a top priority of his government. It is a laudable aim, though critics believe it does not appear to link what is largely an individual-driven campaign to the appalling practice of manual scavenging. Clearly legislators belonging to Mr Modi's ruling BJP in Gujarat have enthusiastically backed their leader's call.

Surely, there is nothing wrong in that. Open defecation blights the lives of millions of Indians and is an enduring health hazard. Nearly half of Indians continue to defecate in the open. Gujarat, one of India's most prosperous states, is in a hurry to build more toilets; the state has a spotty record here. Its new Chief Minister Anandi Patel says she wants the state to be "open defecation free" in two years. A recent report said more than 70,000 people defecate in the open in the main city of Ahmedabad alone. Good economics does not always lead to good sanitation.

But is the latest move linking a democratic right to building a private utility such a good idea?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Millions of people in India have no access to toilets

Some 40% of people in Gujarat live in its 159 municipalities and eight municipal corporation areas in what is one of India's most urbanised states. There are some 13,500 village councils in its more than 18,500 villages. Elections to these bodies are critical to the health of Gujarat's democracy and development. The freedom to contest the polls is also an inalienable right of every citizen living in their cities and villages.

That is why critics like economist Hemant Shah feel that the bill is essentially "undemocratic and discriminatory", and should be challenged in the courts.

Tens of thousands of people in Gujarat's teeming cities live in sprawling chawls - densely packed buildings with more than a dozen tenements - where many families share a single toilet. Will a chawl resident be barred from contesting because he does not have his private toilet? What happens to the political aspirations of a resident of a grubby shantytown home so small that his living space is sometimes equal to the non-existent toilet?

"The government should first provide space and money to build toilets for the poor. The poor are most affected by urban planning because it has always excluded them. Now they can't dream from standing for public office just because they don't have the space or money to build their own toilets?" asks Professor Shah. It's a valid question.

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