Column: Should Sarpanch Sushanta Swain Be Praised or Condemned?

By Sandeep Sahu

There are times when it is hard to take a stand on an issue. There are two diametrically opposite views on the same issue with strong and convincing arguments to back each of them. In the end, what clinches the argument is the perception of the person taking the call. But that does not necessarily mean the other side is wrong.

The curious case of over 20 families of Goutami panchayat under Sanakhemundi block in Ganjam district being denied their ration under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) by the panchayat for defecating in the open is precisely one such case. In an ideal scenario, no such coercive, extreme steps should have been required to make people who defecate in the open see reason and fall in line. But as we know very well, such an ideal situation rarely prevails. The recent hullabaloo over the steep fines for violation of traffic rules prescribed under the amended Motor Vehicles Act is only the latest proof, if any proof was needed at all, that it is necessary to use coercion and hit where it hurts the most to get the average Indian citizen to mend his law-violating ways. Had it not been for rigorous checking and imposition of fines, how many drivers would be wearing helmets or using seat belts today?

Old habits, as they say, die hard. And Ganjam, as all of us know, is notorious for open defecation, which makes the drive for its abolition even more difficult here than it is elsewhere. One can argue that persuasion would have been a much better and more humane way of dealing with the recalcitrant few. But I find it hard to believe that the panchayat would have resorted to this extreme step without first exhausting this option. The hazards of open defecation are well known and there can be no argument over the fact that it is a worthy cause to be pursued. Open defecation, like the inhuman and abominable practice of manual scavenging, is a blot on a country aspiring to be as a world power. One can also question whether the panchayat has the power to take any such coercive action. But that’s an altogether different debate. The bottom line is that it was working. It is thus extremely difficult to fault sarpanch Sushanta Swain for doing what he did.

Conversely, there is no way one can condone the denial of ration under NFSA to people who, by the very definition of the Act, are too poor to buy rice at the market price. Denial of ration to them thus amounts to denial of the fundamental right to food. You cannot starve people just to stop them from defecating in the open. [In any case, there would be nothing left to defecate if the stomach is empty!] Ganjam Collector Vijay Amruta Kulange is spot on when he says benefits under the NFSA cannot be curtailed. He has done well to assure that supply of ration would be restored to the deprived families soon.

So, how exactly does one resolve this dilemma? One possible way out could be using incentives rather than disincentives to encourage people to use toilets. Maybe the panchayat could consider a reward, over and above the Rs 12, 000 one is entitled to under the Swachh Bharat Mission, for those who construct toilets in their homes – and more importantly – use them. The Ganjam Collector himself set a fine example of incentivizing good practices when he announced a reward of Rs 50, 000 to anyone who proved the existence of ghosts recently.

There are, however, other similar dilemmas which are even more difficult to resolve. A case in point is the practice of using child labour. On the face of it, the goal of abolishing the deplorable but fairly widespread practice is unexceptionable. But go deeper and you may get an altogether different perspective, as this writer did several years ago. An activist friend, who worked on a campaign against child labour, once confided to me that parents chase them away with sticks when they go to persuade them to take their children out of labour. The reason: it deprives the poor family of the supplementary income earned by their children and makes life even more difficult than it already is. It is all very well to rail against child labour at workshops or in street campaigns. But you are left groping for an answer when confronted with the volley of questions asked by angry parents.

Years ago, I faced another moral dilemma when I had gone to Bolangir to do a story on migration. Fed on a generous diet of bookish knowledge, I had no doubt whatsoever in my mind while going there that it was a social evil and needed to be stopped at any cost. By the time I returned, however, my view on the issue had turned completely upside down. After spending two days talking to migrant labourers, their family members, activists and officials of the district administration, I realized why the people in the area would rather risk exploitation, torture and worse in unknown land rather than find work in their area. For one thing, little work is available locally during the season they usually migrate to other states. For another (and this is the most important reason)– they get a lump sum from the sardar (middleman) even before they leave their village. In sharp contrast, payment for work done under the MGNREGS can take weeks, even months, to get. No wonder those who like to see themselves as the ‘saviours’ of these poor people are often seen by the very same people as ‘enemies’!

Such dilemmas abound in almost every sphere of human activity in India primarily because of the complete disconnect between laying down of principles and formulation of policies on the one hand and the harsh ground realities on the other. We make policy without hearing out those for whom it is meant in the first place. Such dilemmas, therefore, would persist as long as this disconnect continues.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)