The grand mission of cleaning up India seems to contribute a lot in creating the illusion of ‘a cleaner and better India’. Photos of political leaders, celebrities with brooms in their hands tend to serve as boosters for the common people in believing in the narrative of ‘achche din’. However, the hypocrisy behind the great scheme of ‘Swachchhta Abhiyan’ has been unravelled by Divya Bharathi, a 28-year-old film director, in her documentary “Kakkoos” (“Toilet”). As opposed to the glorifying narrative of ‘Swachh Bharat Aviyan’, this documentary reveals the other side of the coin, where a completely different image of injustice emerges.
Director Divya Bharathi, who has been vocal regarding social issues since her school days, decided to make the documentary after the deaths of two sanitation workers due to inhalation of toxic gases inside a septic tank, in October 2015, in Kochadai, Madurai. In an interview, Divya stated that she had realised that the visual medium would be the most powerful in addressing an issue like manual scavenging, and therefore she resolved to make a documentary on the lives of sanitation workers.
The director has not only criticised the age-old tradition of assigning people from a particular section of society the task of cleaning tonnes of human waste generated by crores of people (even after manual scavenging was prohibited by the Supreme Court in 2013) but has also turned her critical lens towards the silence of people. This is why she has chosen to dedicate the film “To your conspiracy of silence on the septic tank deaths.”
Based on the lives of the manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, ‘Kakkoos’ shows how these people are exploited, compelled to work in extremely unhygienic conditions, and denied dignity as human beings. Though Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that ‘untouchability’ is a criminal offence, these scavengers, who mostly belong to communities like Chakkiliyan and Arunthathiyar (under the category of ‘scheduled tribe’) are treated with extreme humiliation. These people are compelled to get into the job of scavenging, and remain trapped here across generations, as they are not allowed to work in any other field in the society.
As stated by the sanitary workers, in most cases they are not provided with necessary safety tools, instruments and garments. Out of sheer fear of losing their jobs, these hapless people cannot gather enough courage to complain about the lack of tools and safety gear and agree to work with their bare hands. As it has been documented, one of the scavengers states that she cannot eat for almost one or two day(s) after cleaning human waste. Another woman expresses with tears in her eyes how her own children have started treating her as ‘untouchable’.
“Kakkoos” has created a huge fuss regarding its ‘disturbing’ portrayal of the lives of the sanitary workers who work relentlessly in order to keep society clean, yet are debarred from their basic rights. This exploitative image of society undoubtedly goes against the ideals championed in the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, through which the government aims to present a dirt-free India within a few years.
The contrasting images of the reality presented in “Kakkoos” seem to unravel the hollowness of schemes like ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’. As a result, public screenings of the documentary were blocked several times by the police, and a number of cases have been filed against Divya Bharathi charging her with the crime of endangering the sovereignty and integrity of the country. Divya has also mentioned how the shooting of the film was hindered by higher authorities, who would snatch away the camera in order to stop the documentation from happening.
However the film has managed to gain immense popularity on YouTube as it has been watched by more than 3 lakh people. While stating her aim behind making this documentary, Divya has clearly stated that the film has not been made for the Dalits, but for non-Dalits. She has added that her aim with the film is to instil a deep-rooted sense of guilt amidst the non-Dalit communities, so that people can be ashamed of the kind of society they live in, and can feel horrible about the deaths which they silently encourage.
‘Kakkoos’ is definitely an eye-opener for every Indian. They might close their eyes while watching the documentary, but will feel guilty about being silent all these years, for at least a few minutes.