Govt attacks UN expert over Swachh Bharat remarks

Govt attacks UN expert over Swachh Bharat remarks

A United Nations special rapporteur's critical remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pet project Swachh Bharat Mission evoked a strong riposte from the government on Friday.

Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, called upon the government to incorporate a human rights perspective in its national programmes on water and sanitation. He noted that India's emphasis on building toilets should not overshadow the focus on providing drinking water to all.

Heller's comments in a news conference in the morning evoked a sharp response from the government. The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation came out with a press release by the evening, deploring his remarks and accusing him of being insensitive towards Mahatma Gandhi. It also accused him of making "sweeping judgements" which were "either factually incorrect, based on incomplete information, or which grossly misrepresent the drinking water and sanitation situation on the ground".

Heller was on an official visit to India from October 27 to November 10, at the invitation of the government. He met representatives of the central, state and local governments, as well as members of civil society organisations. He also visited Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata and Imphal, and talked to people about access to essential water and sanitation services.

"Everywhere I went, I saw the logo of the Clean India Mission - Gandhi's glasses. In its third year of implementation, now is a critical time to replace the lens of those glasses with the human rights lens," Heller said on Friday.

His comment did not go down well with the government. The Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), which oversees the implementation of the Swacch Bharat Mission in rural areas, deplored "the serious insensitivity" shown by the UN special rapporteur towards Mahatma Gandhi.

"The world knows that the Mahatma was the foremost proponent of human rights, including for sanitation, his unique and special focus. Gandhiji's glasses, the unique logo of the Swachh Bharat Mission, epitomise core human rights principles," the MDWS said in a press release.

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