Most practicing Hindus are staunch believers of purity-pollution norms. The concept of purity is so deeply engraved in the psyche that they would rather defecate in the open than build a toilet within their own house (Gatade, 2015). The burden of cleaning it up by manually picking up excreta falls on people belonging to specific castes (Dalits) who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Some castes engaged in this dehumanizing occupation are Bhangi, Hadi, Mehtar, Chuhra, and Valmiki. It becomes imperative to understand the social situation of manual scavengers in the times of Swachh Bharat.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013 defines a manual scavenger as someone who is employed to clean or dispose of human excreta from an insanitary latrine or open drain pit or railway tracks. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) was flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 2nd October, 2014. It aims to make India an open defection free nation by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019. While the government boasts about the number of toilets built in rural areas, it turns a blind eye to the inhuman conditions in which manual scavengers have been working. As per the socioeconomic caste census 2015, nearly 1, 80,657 households have reported manual scavengers. NSSO 2015-16 found that out of the 3.5 crore toilets that the government built in rural years, 55.4% are defunct due to lack of water supply and proper drainage system. Open defecation continues to date and so does the abolished practice of manual scavenging.
Manual scavenging is a dangerous occupation as it poses a risk to life. In 2014, Supreme Court ordered that sewage pit workers should be considered as manual scavengers and that the state should do everything possible to prevent such employment. But sewage cleaners in our cities are compelled to work in the dirty sewage pits without any protection gear, helmet, ropes, masks, and other equipment. Sometimes, they do not even have access to soap and water after their work (Gatade, 2015). Because of such hazardous work conditions, they are prone to diseases such as Hepatitis A. Instances of death due to asphyxiation are not uncommon. It is speculated that 1400 manual scavengers have died due to dangerous work conditions in the past three years. A report also mentioned that only 5-10% of the manual scavengers in Delhi live till their retirement age (Ramaswamy & Srinivasan, 2017).
Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation. Manual scavengers are considered untouchables because of the belief that those who pick up the impure excreta are impure in the flesh. Even today, members of Valmiki and Bhangi communities are compelled to follow this regressive work tradition. A journalist, Sudharak Olwe, reported that there are approximately 30,000 Dalit manual scavengers in Mumbai working under Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), indicating that the municipal authorities are themselves continuing such practices. It was also found that Indian Railways is the biggest employer of manual scavengers for cleaning the railway tracks, the reason cited being cost effectiveness. Section 5 of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013, makes anyone who continues having insanitary latrines and employs manual scavengers liable for punishment. But no action has been taken against these government bodies. The Act mandates the government to provide the workers with protective gears but probably a Dalit’s life is not worth that much.
The problem with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is that it focuses on cleaning roads, villages, and cities, without paying attention to who does the cleaning and in what conditions. The NDA government had spent about 3,214 crore rupees on the advertisement of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But it allocated less than 1% of the money allocated by UPA government in 2013-14 towards the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. It is striking how none of the advertisements rolled out to promote SBA mentioned the plight of manual scavengers. In his book Karmyog, Narendra Modi compared cleaning excreta with a ‘spiritual’ experience.
“I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation… At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.” (Modi, 2007, pp. 48-49)
What more can we expect from a government whose leader is deifying the burden of being born to a scavenging caste as a “service to god and the society”? This is clearly anti-Dalit and a Brahminical understanding of caste-based division of labour. By considering themselves as twice born and Dalits as lesser born, the Brahmins have always maintained that performing the so-called dirty jobs is the dharma of the Dalits. We must understand that their service comes with the cost of their lives and our governments have failed them. Cleaning the mind is the first step towards cleaning the country. Swachh Bharat can never be a reality until India gets rid of the stench of Brahminism and the cancer called casteism. As long as this division of labourers and disregard for their lives continues, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will fail to serve its purpose.
Gatade, S. (2015). Silencing Caste, Sanitising Oppression: Understanding Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Economic and Political Weekly, 50 (44), 29-35.
Modi, N. (2007). Karmyog. Government of Gujarat.
Ramaswamy, V. & Srinivasan, V. (2017, August 23-25). The State and Urban Violence Against Marginalized Castes: Manual Scavenging in India Today. Paper presented at Sixth Critical Studies Conference, Kolkata. Retrieved from http://www.mcrg.ac.in/6thCSC/6thCSC_Full_Papers/Ramaswamy_Srinivasan.pdf
Header image courtesy https://s4.scoopwhoop.com/anj/hgk/881661361.jpg
 An insanitary latrine is one from which human excreta needs to be cleaned manually.
 After the controversy that was spurred by these lines, copies of this book were withdrawn.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Get all our posts, blogs and video content via e-mail.