True harbingers of ‘Swachh Bharat’

  • Scavangers have to be treated as heroes
  • They have been keeping the society clean through ages
  • Their service and sacrifice have to be acknowledged
  • Shall treat all human beings as equals
  • Only then would the Clean India campaign succeed
Mallepalli Laxmaiah

Mallepalli Laxmaiah

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited the entire nation to join him in the effort to clean up India, by involving themselves for two hours every week to help keep their surroundings clean. In the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Campaign) conceived by NaMo himself, he invited several celebrities including corporate honchos, political leaders, sportspersons, movie stars, intellectuals to unveil his dream while appealing to the entire population to be part of it. On Gandhi Jayanthi (October), he called upon everyone to join him in the effort to “Clean up India”. It is agreeable to all that this effort is well intended and something quite inspiring.

One who does not learn from history tends to repeat it, and the present paves way to the future. Hence it is necessary to look at our previous experience to understand whether any such efforts had been undertaken earlier? If so, what was the result? Only when we carefully examine our past will we be able to deal with our present in an appropriate manner.

S R Sankaran transformed the lives of manual scavangers.

S R Sankaran transformed the lives of manual scavangers.

                The 1930-31 London Round-Table Conference and the following debates and discussions led to the Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. This opened a new window for discussion on the pathetic situation and the deplorable conditions that the “untouchables” lived in. Mahatma Gandhi created a ‘Harijan Sevak Sangh’ to make their lives better by taking part in the work that was generally limited to the Dalits like cleaning the roads and other menial jobs. Gandhi’s efforts, though commendable, did not yield the desired result and the movement ended up merely as a publicity stunt and later disappeared from the agenda of the debate. Gandhi’s continuous efforts did not result in improving the situation. Over 60 years later, Narendra Modi comes forward with almost a similar programme. Will it also end up as a publicity exercise without any tangible outcome?

                In our nation, every occupation has a caste and every caste has an occupation. The respect one gets in society depends on the occupation he or she is involved with and what caste the occupation belongs to. To clean up our country it is necessary to clean up our putrefied conscience and inhuman ideology. For that to happen, it is important to understand and implement the principle of dignity of labour, to respect and love the person you makes it his occupation to clean up our excrement and make sure we do not have to experience what he experiences. Respecting a ‘dirty occupation’ has never been a part of our culture. Ours is the ‘great’ culture that banishes the ones who clean up our excrement and keep our surroundings in a livable condition and forces them live outside the village at a distance, lest we get contaminated. We cannot clean our surroundings, except taking photos, and uploading them on the internet and web sites, with a broom in one hand and a pile of papers placed on the floor for the purpose of a photograph. The only ones who really keep our surroundings clean even to this date are the ones who for centuries have been banished from villages, scorned by all, shooed away from vicinity and lived outside the accepted ‘boundaries of dignity.’

Manual Scavenging

Manual Scavenging

                In a village a dead cattle is not touched by anyone except the “Madigas” (Dalits). They carry the stinking carcase out of the village and provide products used in about 18 caste-based occupations. They expend their lives by being an unacknowledged and unappreciated support system to the entire village economy. In the same way, hundreds of years ago, before the modern drainage system was built in our cities, it was the lower castes who picked up the wastes and carried it to the outskirts of the city while being subjected to humiliation by the ungrateful people. Over 60 years of Independence had not shown any respect for or goodwill towards those who undertake the menial jobs. Laws had been made in 1993 and 2003 to safeguard the rights of the people involved in menial jobs. Even the Supreme Court on many occasions flayed the governments for not making efforts to make the manual scavenging jobs safer or even to give them basic equipment. The legislation made in 1993 was a piece of failure as there has been no improvement in the conditions of those who do menial job. Today, lakhs of manual scavengers across the country are still living the same miserable lives; open to infections, diseases and the callousness of humiliation. For hundreds of years they have been keeping India clean. They clean latrines in offices, hospitals and even households.

                In our own city, monsoon brings along happiness to many. But when drainage overflows everyone who passes by in vehicle or by walk shuts his or her nose, but at the end of the day it is a person from the Dalit community who gets into the manhole and removes the garbage stuck in the drainage system and clears the way for flow again. Though we come across these days some mechanised vehicles that suck the dirt and waste from drainage, it is a fact that most of this work is done by humans. About 20 years ago, I remember writing an article on drainage systems and workers who maintain it. It is quite appalling to see the sacrifices a person makes to make sure we live a comfortable and healthy life. It saddened me to see how dangerous these jobs have become. They get into dirty water containing human waste that sticks all over their bodies. It upset me and made me question the kind of inhuman times we live in. While one person enters the manhole, another man stays up handing over equipment> When I asked him why he did not enter the manhole and help the other man, he replies, “I prefer giving up my life than getting in there, I am not a mala or madiga, why would I get into the drainage?”. It is evident that this occupation has been attributed to a particular caste. There have been occasions when various manhole workers had succumbed to poisonous gases emanating from human wastes in the sewage. There have been reports of these tragic occurrences at Dilsukhnagar and Madhapur in Hyderabad about a year ago.

If our government intends to inculcate a sense of cleanliness in all and change our country into a “Clean India”, it much first of all recognise the efforts of those who for ages have been keeping India “Swachh”. The “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” must be dedicated to the people who, as a duty and responsibility, have been keeping us away from dirt and disease. There are acknowledged heroes who fight foreign insurgents and aggressors on the borders as part of the army. We must recognise the ones around us who work every day to keep our country clean and for ages have been carrying baskets of feces on their heads as heroes too. Only when the hearts of political leaders, administrators and people in general are cleansed can we hope to have a “Swachh Bharat”. Governments and all sections of the people in the society have to understand this shameful past, undergo change of heart and start sincerely treating all human beings as equals in order to work inclusively to build a Clean India, Swachh Bharat.

(Mallepalli Laxmaiah is a Sr. Journalist, an Amberdkar scholar and founder of Centre for Dalit Studies.)

1 Response

  1. Vudayagiri Nandagopal says:

    Thanks Lakshmaiah garu, You have brought out the real issue that needs to be recognized when we speak Swacha Bharat. . .

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