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Book Review

Squatting with Dignity – Lessons from India
Kumar Alok
SAGE Publications Pvt. Ltd ,2010
Pages - 412
Price - Rs.495/- (Paperback)
Smt Shailaja Chandra
Former Secretary, Department of AYUSH, Government of India and Chief Secretary, Delhi

Squatting with Dignity is a book on rural sanitation in India written by a professional but for the most part presented like a compendium of information on the history, implementation strategies, systems, geographical spread, achievements and challenges of this sector. The book provides many useful insights, particularly the success of the  Midnapore example which stimulated an interest in and support for rural sanitation, a subject which hitherto had been a comparatively neglected sector. The growth of the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) of the Government of India, the institution of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar Awards, and the enthusiastic response from the Panchayats would be of direct interest to officers working in the area of rural sanitation in the Central and state Governments as well as subject specialists, NGOs and researchers.

       The book is replete with descriptions of dealing with a range of stakeholders many of whom had different world-views. The insistence by specific stakeholders on acceptance of a particular point of view,  the compromises and U-turns that had to be made at times provide material for a case study on  departmental pulls and pressures which exist almost in all areas of development.

            The book makes impressive reading in its presentation of the exponential growth of the sanitation sector and the policy and financial backing that the sector received in the decade post 2000 evinced by a doubling of outlay during the 10th plan period. This is heartening in two ways: first as the author puts it, sometimes impossible looking goals do become possible. Second, the country was able to manage the program through its own resources and to sever dependency on external partners showing also how the Government systems can be sympathetic, even supportive, once convinced. The history of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP) and the enthusiasm with which the panchayats responded to the challenge has been brought out very well and gives the hope that relatively simple ideas can indeed lead to big transformation.

An interesting story relates to how the whole business of deciding whether to use the Sholay movie as the theme for developing a communication strategy for sanitation witnessed its own internal drama within the Department. In another episode the author recounts how the monitoring division of the Department distributed funds to small players, eventually leading to an exercise in futility as often happens. But this eventually led to the concept of Report Cards being later introduced for the TSC which became a powerful tool for data analysis.

            The chapter dealing with ‘Geographical Spread’ would be of interest to State Government officials working in the rural sanitation sector  as it brings out the difference in levels of leadership and enthusiasm between the states.

The last chapter titled ‘The Way Forward’ gives many ideas on future partnerships and collaborations in areas like management, recycling, vermiculture and methane gas production.

            This however is not a book for a general or rather casual reader as it is full of acronyms and somewhat tedious explanations of processes which, only those who have worked in the sector would relate to. While there are some interesting accounts of working with specific bureaucrats, particularly Secretaries of the Department who brought with them an individualism which influenced and often changed policy-making and strategising, the large number of references to such officers (who get transferred or retire within a couple of years and are soon forgotten), detracts from the focus, somewhat.

Also missing is a commentary on why we still see so much open defecation and whether the building of toilets has actually led to behaviour change and improved health outcomes in terms of the big picture.


            The book also makes several references to ancient texts, quotations in Sanskrit, references to Mahatma Gandhi which have been treated as highly controversial by a reviewer Ravi Batharan writing for the Economic and Political Weekly in December 2011. It is possible that some people may agree with Batharan’s view that the title of the book ‘Squatting with Dignity’ does not address the question of “whose dignity?”  Indeed while the terrible problems faced by women and the near absence of privacy and dignity have been brought out well, issues like scavenging, caste-based societal functions have been passed over. Some of these questions may not come under the purview of the rural sanitation programme but since they are fundamental to understanding the social justice aspects of the sector, it does leave a gap in the mind of the reader.