On October 2nd 2019, when the nation celebrated Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) turned five.
Five years ago, Narendra Modi launched an ambitious programme, SBA, to fulfil Gandhi’s dream of a cleaner India. Furthermore, Gandhi’s 150th anniversary was chosen as a deadline to make India open defecation free (ODF). Going by their track record, no one should be surprised to see that the BJP turned this into a grand celebration.
Around the same time, it was announced that PM Modi would receive an award from the Gates Foundation, as an acknowledgement of all the good work that his government had done, with regards to the Swachh Bharat Mission.
But, unfortunately, there was no mention of the two children from the Dalit community, who were beaten to death for defecating in the open, in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh.
After the launch of SBA, the nation underwent a spree of toilet constructions. It was assumed, that having a toilet in the house, would automatically solve the problem of open defecation. But, I believe, trusting toilet construction to be a panacea to open defecation, was based on a faulty Brahminical understanding of Indian society.
The SQUAT (Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends) survey conducted in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, MP, and Rajasthan, reveals the striking fact, that at least one person in every 40% of rural households with toilets, defecates in the open. The survey also suggests, that most Indians hate to use latrines. For many of them, having toilets at home is considered impure, and, this is the reason why they cannot stand to use them. So constructing toilets is not enough, in a country where every aspect of life is inundated with the Hindu notion of caste and purity.
The problem of manual scavenging is like an elephant in the room; Indian politicians are ignoring the issue and SBA is reinforcing it. Manual scavenging stands on two pillars of social evil; the caste system, and patriarchy. About 90% of manual scavengers are female and from a lower caste.
Manual scavenging exists because of inefficient, underground drainage systems. According to Bezwada Wilson, National convenor of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA), out of 9.16 crores toilets built, under SBA, 80-90 % are single-pit, having no automatic supply of water, with no underground sewage system in place.
This fact has also been substantiated by Avinash Kumar of Water Aid; he claims that 65% of toilets built under SBA are single-pit. In my opinion, all these collective measures, in the name of single-pit toilets, without looking into the problems of the underground sewerage system, were done to make sure Dalits could be coerced and manipulated into manual scavenging, forever.
Some time back, dustbins installed in common areas were replaced, by the door-to-door collection system, in which, the person collecting garbage would blow a whistle to announce his or her arrival. This was also symbolic of the pre-1993 era when latrines were emptied through the door-to-door service. The whistle announced the presence of a lower caste person with whom all contact was to be avoided.
‘Where India Goes: Abandoned toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of caste’, coauthored by Dean Spears and Diane Coffee, argues that the effort to create an India that is open defecation free, is unlikely to be successful, because of the issue of the concept of ritual purity.
It underlines that 46 of 55 countries with a lower GDP than India are better off, in terms of open defecation and concludes that open defecation in India is deeply associated with its social structures and norms.
Because of the caste-ridden mentality and Hindu notions of purity which do not allow the masses to use latrines in India, it is going to be a daunting task for the government to shape the behaviour of the citizens in line with SBA.
This is a country where toilets are built behind the house so that the scavenger cannot be seen while walking down the exclusive lane. It is the very same reasoning of purity, that prevents toilets from being built in temple premises.
In my opinion, when people cannot even bear to see toilets built near their premises because of the Hindu notion of purity, it will be ridiculous if we expect them to clean their toilets. The question remains; if everybody starts to use toilets, then who is going to clean toilets and go down into manholes?
We know that only people from the Dalit community are assigned to this job. The report published by RICE (Research Institute for Compassionate Economics) corroborates the same argument, that in rural areas, cleaning toilets is a job reserved exclusively for people from the Dalit community.
So, the success of SBA in the existing set-up is likely to increase the number of manual scavengers. But now, because people from the Dalit community have begun to assert their rights, and because of the work done by organisations like SKA, it’s harder than ever, to coerce them to accept these menial jobs.
I think it is safe to say, that all these developments in the name of SBA have helped consolidate caste, by coercing people from lower rungs of society into manual scavenging
In my opinion, on the one hand, the shrinking public sector due to a privatisation frenzy and the growth of joblessness, resulting in unemployment, are collective measures at the policy-making level, that have pushed people from the Dalit community into menial jobs.
On the other hand, to meet the targets of SBA, many states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, MP and Uttrakhand have coerced people into manual scavenging, violating the law against this practice.
Apart from coercion, I believe, people from this community are also being cajoled into accepting these meagre jobs via missions like ‘Swachaata Hi Seva’ (Cleanliness is Service).
Modi’s visual politics of washing the feet of manual scavengers in Varanasi and frequent praise of the workers related to SBA are manipulative tricks, to beguile them into the inhumane profession of manual scavenging. Under the veil of SBA, it was ensured that the Dalit community would stick to their assigned work. If this move by the government is scrutinised, in light of the recent NRC, then it is perfectly in line with making India a Hindu Rashtra; by ensuring that Muslims remain sub-standard citizens and Dalits remain in the clutches of Manusmriti.
SBA was launched hastily, without paying heed to the ground reality of a country which is so entrenched in the idea of caste and purity. Therefore, without altering the Brahmanical understanding of the country, the SBA movement is bound to fail. And in order to make India a truly clean country, there is no other way, than to eradicate the caste system first.
The author is a student of the campus law centre, University of Delhi.