‘Swachh Bharat without ‘untouchability and caste disrimination’
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Radical Humanist, political analyst and human rights activist
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ‘honouring’ a safai karmachari from Hyderabad Municipal Corporation for his ‘commitment’ to the duty. NDTV’s Uma Sudhir reported that the said ‘civic worker’ always come before time and has not taken leave for a single day even during emergencies. He is the leader of his team of safai karmcaharis and works day and night to ensure ‘Hyderabad’ remain ‘cleanest’. This is what we should all be ‘proud’ of said the reporter, dedication to your work.
Long back, Gandhi said the same thing about the safai karmacharis. If you are committed to doing your ‘work’ or what is ‘assigned’ to you then you will get birth in a better ‘category’ next life, he said. That is one reason that Gandhi never supported any ‘strike’ or ‘hartal’ of the safai karmcaharis as he knew none else would be doing that work. Prime Minister Modi had said long back that ‘safai’ work give you ‘spiritual’ experience. As a chief minister of Gujarat, he had even written a book on this ‘spiritual’ work. We don’t know whether the book is available now or not. I am sure many Gujarati friends should be having a soft copy of it.
Now this ‘dedication’ for ‘sanitary’ work is quite exploitative, to say the least. Long back in the early morning of ‘independent’ day, I recorded a conversation with many of the ‘Safai karmcaharis’ in Mohammdabad, Ghazipur district, who were doing their ‘duty’ early morning with brooms and other equipment to clean the drains and roads under the municipality. I asked whether they don’t have a holiday today and the answer was, ‘ Sir, the entire country is ‘celebrating’ independence day. Everybody wear good clothes, distribute sweets, enjoy watching the parade or listening to our leaders but we, the safai karmcaharis, are still supposed to do all the dirty work. When will ‘our’ freedom be achieved ? We have no holidays, not even during the emergency. We don’t have any medical benefits, not even gloves and other equipment necessary for cleaning.’
A day in the life of a safai karmcahari will actually tell you what is the duty and how painful it is for them to carry this work which we are feeling proud of. Every Sarkari officer today feel ‘proud’ of being ‘associated’ with ‘Swachh Bharat’ Abhiyan and have a photograph of him or her with a ‘broom’, cleaning the ‘street’, at their chambers. The entire Swachch Bharat campaign is a hypocritic one unless it is associated with the community of manual scavengers or safai karmcaharis who have been doing all the dirty work for centuries. Can this Swachch Bharat not focus on giving them a dignified space, rehabilitation as well as honourable place in the society. Are they asking too much for this work ? But when we make ‘Swachh Bharat’ so ‘simple’ as if the work is not done ‘dedicatedly’ by the Safai karmcaharis. It makes as Safai is just cleaning the already cleaned road. Just for a day, try to peep into those dirty sewage or drainage system.
Long back a friend in Germany asked me why do I oppose this work since doing your work is not wrong. ‘ we all clean our toilets’, she said. My answer was that things are not that ‘simple’ as you are assuming. In the west, your toilets or now ‘greenrooms’ are the ‘best’ places to even sleep or read good books unlike Indian ‘sandas’ or shauchalaya’ which is full of stink with flies hovering over the dirt. In any remote urbanised town or old town of India, you can’t even see how the ‘latrines’ are where the work is done manually. I have videoed most of these things at different places in India, went deep into some of those stinking pits or deep holes where every day the people from manual scavenging communities clean. I can bet many people can’t even watch the film made by Stalin on the issue. So one can understand what could be the ‘spiritual’ ‘experience’ in such a filthy work which is being ‘glorified’ because we want someone to do it for us.
It is not that the Safai Karmcharis should not be honoured. It is a great thing that we are finally ‘acknowledging’ their work. But it is also a fact that whether this mere ‘acknowledgement’ will help eradicate untouchability and caste discrimination they face ? Will prime minister publically speak against caste system and untouchability ? Is manual scavenging or ‘safai occupation’ separate from the issue of ‘untouchability’ and ‘caste discrimination’. An Amitabh Bachchan or a Hema Malini or ministers, officers picking up broom one day does not make them a victim of caste discrimination. Neither is the work a solidarity with the community of manual scavengers. In the entire Swachch Bharat campaign not a single word about the tireless and thankless work of the manual scavenging communities victim of India’s hidden apartheid based on caste system.
Hence ‘duty’ of manual scavengers must be ‘appreciated’ but not become a ‘tool’ to emotionally ‘exploit’ them as Gandhi did and now his ‘followers’ are suggesting. The community of manual scavengers need holidays like anyone else, medical claims and a good remuneration for their work if we consider the dignity of labour the most important thing of our system.
In the meantime, good that our prime minister is honouring the ‘safai karmacharis’ but is not it an irony that the entire government keep quiet when a person from the same community is honoured internationally for his mammoth work of bringing the issues of the community to the international level. What stopped Prime Minister and his colleagues to ‘congratulate’ Bezwada Wilson on winning the Magsaysay Award. We may differ with Awards and those who give them but none can dispute about Bezwada Wilson getting the honour. For us honoring Bezwada Wilson becomes more important than Magsaysay and if the government had acknowledged him, it would have done a great honor to them and strengthened the campaign for Swachh Bharat but it seems the government want Safai campaign inside the TV studios through doling out huge advertisement to them rather than using the money for the uplift of the community which made India Swachh for centuries facing its filth and discrimination. Have we seen any parallel of such a structure which rebuke a community for providing us clean space?
Any effort to suggest that keeping India ‘clean’ drive is just an initiative without any linkage to caste discrimination and untouchability means hiding the dirty reality of India. Frankly, India will only be ‘clean’ the day it will not link sanitation work to a particular community and end up caste discrimination and untouchability. Swachch Bharat is not possible without an honourable rehabilitation of the community of manual scavengers and it will be totally hypocritical without the complete decimation of the caste system and untouchability