The real question is not why government wants to push the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but what it wants to pack into this campaign and how it will approach the issue.
I called Raavanji and Bezwada Wilson to see what they thought of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to be launched today on Gandhi Jayanti. Raavanji or Darshan Ratna “Raavan” has started a socio-religious movement, the Adi-Dharma Samaj. Aimed at drawing the next generation of scavenging communities away from this degrading occupation, it has done pioneering work to spread awareness about education and deaddiction. Wilson Bezwada, also from a safai karmachari family like Raavanji, started the Safai Karmachari Andolan, the organisation that spearheads the campaign to eradicate manual scavenging. Over the years, they have guided me in thinking about the life and livelihood of communities engaged in scavenging.
Both of them were unimpressed with the official Swachh Abhiyan. “This is just a recycled version of the UPA’s Nirmal Bharat campaign,” said Wilson. He thought it was about the manufacturers (who build toilets) and customers (who use facilities), not about service providers (who do the cleaning). Raavanji was peeved at the choice of a Valmiki colony to launch the campaign. “This is yet another way of stigmatising the community and reaffirming its connection to this degrading occupation”, he said.
But I did not fully share their scepticism. Activists tend to be overcritical. When the prime minister spoke from the Red Fort about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the need for toilets for girls, it resonated with many Indians like me. At long last, a PM was talking about a real, mundane problem that affects peoples’ everyday lives. Granted, every sarkari function has a degree of tamasha and farce built into it. Yet, a campaign like this one can serve to focus on an issue that badly needed national attention. The sight of a national political leader picking up a broom can be empowering and liberating. So, the real question is not why the government wants to push the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The real question is what the government wants to pack into this campaign, and how it is going to approach this issue.
For this campaign to be effective, the issue of cleanliness has to be approached differently. It must not be cleanliness just for you and me, the middle-class consumers of civic amenities who encounter dirt as they step out of their homes and gated colonies. The focus must shift to the aam aadmi, who lives and earns a living in highly unhygienic conditions. The focus must also be widened from the visible dirt on the street to the invisible and often more deadly lack of a clean environment. Finally, the national campaign for a clean India must focus on who is to clean India, on how to provide a dignified life to those who have carried the burden of cleaning so far.
This gives us a four-fold campaign. The beginning has to be made by cleaning the filth on our streets and public spaces. If nothing else, cleaning these most visible sites of dirt would have a therapeutic effect. The danger here is tokenism: public spectacles don’t last long and often don’t achieve much. It would be a good idea to involve citizens in keeping vigil over selected garbage dumps. The real question is: will we stay awake after October 2?
The second arena is cleaning the environment. Some of the challenge is visible in the form of mountains of solid waste in any metropolis in the country, or the filthy state of our water bodies. Air pollution is less visible. If the national campaign for a clean India were to skirt the difficult issue of environmental pollution, we may have touched just the tip of the iceberg. The trouble is that the current government has started rolling back many existing environmental safeguards. Pollution norms have been diluted, institutions for monitoring these have been disempowered. Do we have the political will to clean our environment?
The third arena is to de-stigmatise cleaning. We need to challenge a national hypocrisy: we all love cleanliness and hate cleaning. Gandhiji thought the scavenging occupation could be de-stigmatised without breaking the caste-occupation link. He tried hard and sincerely to convince fellow countrymen about the virtues of scavenging. He failed. He was bound to fail in this caste-ridden society. We need to move beyond Gandhiji and learn from Ambedkar here. The way to de-stigmatise scavenging is to break its ties with one caste. For me, some of the most moving moments in the last few years have been the “seminars” Raavanji organises for Valmiki boys and girls engaged in higher education. That is the way for the future.
Besides, the working conditions of the safai karmacharis must become a national priority. Ad-hoc, temporary and contractual jobs are the norm for them. They get paid poorly and have no job security. The condition of sewer workers should be a matter of national shame. They must get the same gear and medical protection as the fire tender workers. And the most degrading practice of manual scavenging must go. Ask Bezwada Wilson about how the government has dragged its feet on this issue, despite the law and court judgments. Would the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan become the occasion for an end of this degrading practice?
The fourth and final arena must be cleansing our conscience. Untouchability has not been eradicated from our minds and hearts, not even in modern, cosmopolitan India, and the scavenger still bears the brunt. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may be the right moment to offer a national apology to the safai karmachari community and to take a collective pledge for the future. Would the PM lead the country in this?
The writer, chief spokesperson of Aam Aadmi Party, is currently on leave from CSDS