Bill Gates just gave Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi an award for building 100 million toilets across India, despite protests from Nobel Peace Prize winners and human rights advocates

Business Insider Lifestyle 1 month ago
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was honored with a 2019 Goalkeepers award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Tuesday evening for his bullish program to end open defecation across India.
  • The "Swachh Bharat" (Clean India) toilet-building program has built over 100 million toilets across the country since 2014, according to government estimates. 
  • Human rights experts say Prime Minister Modi has a long track record of dangerous Hindu-nationalism and policies that target minorities. Modi's prize was protested by over 100,000 petitioners, and at least three Nobel Peace laureates, among other human rights defenders.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

NEW YORK — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a 2019 Goalkeepers award Tuesday night for his efforts to give every Indian a place to pee and poop.

Modi was awarded one of four 2019 Gates Foundation Goalkeeper awards, given out to individuals "working to tackle the issues contributing to global inequity," as the foundation put it. 

The Indian Prime Minister's award comes despite clamorous protests in recent weeks from Nobel Peace laureates, over 100,000 petition-signers, and human rights advocates and lawyers who all argued that someone with Modi's record on human rights should not be lauded, for any reason at all. Two celebrities who were originally expected to participate in the event, Jameela Jamil and Riz Ahmed, both also decided not to attend, the Gates Foundation told The New York Times.

Francisco Bencosme, Asia advocacy manager for Amnesty International, told Insider that the award is "problematic" given the fact that under Modi there's been an increase in religious and ethnic violence in India, and a communications blackout is underway in Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority state.

"We tend to not often times comment on awards, but I think Bill Gates not mentioning these issues is extremely concerning," Bencosme said.

At the glittery Goalkeepers ceremony, Gates shied away from addressing those concerns, and kept the talk about Modi's award centered on all things sanitation. 

"Managing human waste is one of the world's oldest and toughest challenges," Gates said before he congratulated Modi on stage with a handshake, calling his plan a "model" that other countries with poor sanitation should follow. "I would say most leaders are not willing to talk about it, in part, because the solutions aren't that easy."

Gates recognized Modi for his work bringing toilets to Indians

Modi has been the driving force behind India's massive toilet-building initiative, dubbed "Swachh Bharat," (aka Clean India), which is an ambitious goal that he set in 2014 for the country to be "open defecation free," just in time for Mahatma Ghandi's 150th birthday on October 2, 2019. 

"I dedicate this award to all the Indians who ... started giving cleanliness the highest priority in their daily lives," Modi said through a translator as he accepted the award. 

Gates, like Modi, has been near-obsessed with developing new kinds of toilets and new ways to help the world "go." Last year, he announced his foundation, the wealthiest in the world, was investing $400 million into researching toilets that don't require a sewer system. Gates also brought a jar of poop on stage in Beijing in 2018, just to highlight the point that a lack of safe access to a clean spot to pee and poop still kills upwards of 500,000 people every year

"Before the project, the government estimated that more than half a million people were defecating in the open," Gates said of Modi's sanitation initiative. "But today, just 5 years later, thanks to the leadership of hundreds of thousands of people in communities across India, the vast majority now have access to safe sanitation."

Still, independent toilet-counters say India's total sanitation success under Modi's "Swachh Bharat" is debatable. While more toilets have certainly been built under Modi's watch, not all of them are being used, and some are shut to the public. One independent study cited by a Reuters investigation of the toilet program in 2019 suggested that as much as "44% of the rural population across four large states still defecate in the open." Another BBC investigation found that 77% of rural households now have access to toilets (not the 100% toilet coverage the Indian government touts), and near 23% of government school toilets are not usable. 

"If the Gates Foundation really wants to amplify sanitation efforts in India, it should give the award to community workers instead of a far-right nationalist," lawyers Suchitra Vijayan and Arjun Singh Sethi wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post protesting Modi's toilet award win. 

In a statement sent to Insider, the Gates Foundation said "we respect their views and their right to express themselves," of the award protesters, but also added, "before the Swachh Bharat mission, over 500 million people in India did not have access to safe sanitation, and now, the majority do. There is still a long way to go, but the impacts of access to sanitation in India are already being realized."

Protesters and human rights advocates say Modi's record on non-toilet issues can't be ignored

Protests of the award continued on Tuesday outside the show, where a small but vocal group of about a dozen people showed up across the street, toting megaphones and carrying signs calling Modi the "face of Indian terrorism." 

During the ceremony, while Gates stuck to the toilet talk, others did not. 

Aya Chebbi, a 31-year-old Tunisian activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Africa Youth Movement, was one of the three other 2019 Goalkeeper award winners. She said we live in a world where "politicians fuel xenophobia and violence" as she collected her award. 

"It has become acceptable to trade human rights for sanitary projects," Chebbi said, in a clear snub to the Modi award. "The reality we live in is dangerous because our global leaders overlook it, perpetrate it, and even remain silent in front of injustice."   

The Gates Foundation often declares it is "guided by the belief that every life has equal value." But years before he was prime minister, Modi was the first person ever barred from entering the US under a religious freedom law, during the George W. Bush administration, for his failure to crack down on deadly riots targeting minority Muslims, a move that earned him the nickname "Butcher of Gujarat."

Modi, taking his award with him, left the stage on Tuesday to the sound of a few scattered claps, and many more silent hands in the audience. 


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