Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of a Clean India was incorporated into the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan when it was instituted last year. Gandhi’s glasses became the symbol, Gandhi’s quote became the slogan. ‘Cleanliness is Godliness’ said the BJP government, as India marched towards a clean Bharat. Nine celebrities were nominated by our Prime Minister to take forward the initiative. With numbers increasingly joining the movement it can be safely said that it is definitely one of the highlights of Modi’s one year reign. The government has already built 80 lakh toilets; the target is to make toilets available for 99 million households over the next four years (2015-2019).
A concern that wasn’t addressed then, and hasn’t been addressed till now is – who will clean these toilets? Is there a Nagar Palika, Municipal Corporation, an agency to establish the fact that those who have been traditionally cleaning these toilets don’t get pushed into the same profession again? I am talking about manual scavengers here, those who are forced to collect our waste as it has been ordained to them by their caste, who aren’t allowed to use toilets themselves. I don’t see a future for them under the Swachh Bharat mission, because they will be pushed more into cleaning those toilets built under the scheme.
Under the Swachh Bharat scheme, the Government reimburses those households that do not have members working for the government to build toilets in their homes, to up to Rs. 12,000. According to Human Rights Watch, people who work as human scavengers in India are unable to leave their jobs primarily because their caste is expected to do the job. The poor quality of toilets built by the Ministry of Drinking water and Sanitation under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a testimony to the fact that manual scavenging will prevail in villages because modern sanitation facilities are yet to permeate. When Gandhi envisioned a Swachh Bharat, he meant a country where there will be no manual scavengers. Currently there are 11,000 scavengers in the country, with over 80% of them in Uttar Pradesh alone. A legislation was enacted by the Parliament this year that prohibits manual scavenging, but the funds allocated for the objective have hardly been spent.
Instead of creating a situation that is an indirect push to manual scavenging, it would be a better idea to put the human waste to use. There are enough examples of human waste being utilised as fertiliser. But, the problem with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is more deep rooted than the initiative itself. Its symbolism is problematic because it doesn’t deal with the basic criteria for cleanliness- the eradication of caste-based jobs of cleaning. And till that happens, I will be sceptical to associate myself with the scheme, call it a ‘success’ or look forward to it’s ‘success’.