‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ and the Filth
of Democracy in India
A Dalit, or Untouchable,
manually cleans a sewage system in India,
which proudly proclaims itself as the world’s largest
(Photo by M. Srinath, The Hindu)
No, the man pictured here has not entered the
gutter as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much hyped “Swachh
Bharat Abhiyan,” or “Clean India Campaign.” Unlike the ad rush that
shows him posing with a broom, he could not have entered the gutter
to preach to the country about the virtues of cleanliness.
He is, in fact, indulging in a practice outlawed time and again by
both the legislature and the judiciary of the country, most recently
on March 27 this year. The Supreme Court had outlawed manual
scavenging yet again and ordered all state governments to strictly
enforce the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual
Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act passed by the Indian
Parliament in 2013. Yet the practice continues as exposed by this
photograph taken by M. Srinath of The Hindu in Chennai, not in some
nondescript village tucked away in the remote areas.
Furthermore, this picture is not the only photograph to expose the
failure it illustrates. There is hardly a day without news of manual
scavengers dying of asphyxiation in gutters across the nation. The
last time the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported a case
from Hyderabad. Before that, it occurred in Surendranagar in the
state of Gujarat. Earlier still there was a case from Varanasi, the
parliamentary constituency of the prime minister. These cases are
only the ones that make it into the media. There is hardly any data
on such deaths, but activist S. Anand estimates that at least 22,337
people engaged in some kind of sanitation work die in India every
year—one to two of them literally dying in gutters every day.
Going by the law and Supreme Court order, the administration must be
completely aware of these deaths. The Supreme Court had banned
entering manholes completely unless in acute emergencies. It had
further made written approval of the chief executive officer (or
whatever name is the title of the head of the civic body) mandatory
in these emergencies. It had also ordered that people entering
manholes should be provided with full protective equipment.
The picture shows how earnestly the state governments are following
the order in the capital cities, leaving us to imagine how bad it
must be further out of view. The man appears bare bodied, though he
must at least be carrying a rod not visible in the photo. That is
all he has; there is no mask to protect him from the poisonous gases
that fill these death traps. Moreover, he is not tied with a
protective rope that could be used to pull him out in case he loses
consciousness. Instead, his fellow workers will be forced to enter
the same death trap to pull him out and risk dying themselves. Yes,
this narrative is the recurring story of death in several articles
in the media: “Two Safai Karamcharis Die while Cleaning
Manhole” was a Times of India headline on April 18, 2011;
“Sanitation Workers Die in Septic Tank” was The Hindu’s headline on
January 16 of this year.
There is no dearth of news about workers dying in manholes, but one
can hardly find any reports on the follow-up. Search the archives of
the media or internet, and dying from a lighting strike seems more
likely than finding punishment for those guilty for such deaths.
This avoidance of accountability exists despite the Supreme Court
having fixed the command responsibility for such deaths with the
chief executive officer. There are many reasons behind the clear
disdain for the lives of manual scavengers as well as for the
Supreme Court order that these cases exemplify, but India’s rotten
criminal justice system is one of the most significant.
With the legal system almost completely inaccessible and
unaffordable for the poor while having a decades-long backlog of
court cases, who in their right senses would think of approaching
the courts seeking a remedy? What are the chances of one getting
justice even if they are determined enough to try?
In many of such cases, the administration begins with shirking their
responsibility. They often begin by feigning ignorance about the
employer, about the victim and even about the work as they did in
the case of the death of Pawan, a sanitation worker in Varanasi (link
here). They will often assert that it was not they but private
citizens who employed the victim. The question is, Who is
responsible if they are not? Contracting out the work is routine in
these neoliberal times, but can the principal employer so easily
evade their responsibilities in the eventuality of serious harm to a
worker? How can they give work to such agencies or contractors and
simply claim that they do not even know whom they employ? And
finally, providing sanitation services is the responsibility of the
State, is it not?
It is time the judiciary wakes up to follow up its own orders as the
executive has proved that it will not, at least not for manual
scavengers. The executive perhaps does not need them, a tiny
community with very small numbers and therefore dispensable in
India’s first-past-the-post democratic system. The country’s leaders
will keep having their missions to the moon and Mars as these appear
as signs of national success to the upwardly mobile middle class
(nothing wrong about that per se), but there is no need for
investment in sanitation. For the uninitiated, in most Indian
cities, less than 40 percent of their total population have
meaningful access to sanitation services, but then who cares when
manual scavengers are forced by the caste system to clean their
filth—a striking example of the regressive structure on which the
progressive idea of Indian democracy rests.
And the filth in the gutters is not the only danger. As per the
National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) own admission, the country
has 794,390 dry latrines where human excreta is cleaned manually. It
also has admitted that adding to these are 1,314,652 toilets where
human excreta is flushed into open drains. The recent national
cleanliness campaign has—expectedly—not addressed them.
This reality is why the judiciary should start taking suo moto
notice of such cases and prosecute the chief executive officers of
the responsible civic body. Establishing command responsibility
makes no sense unless it prosecutes and punishes the officers, thus
creating a deterrent. It must also ensure that compensation is given
immediately in cases of death.
Until then, one can have all the cleanliness campaigns one wants and
pose with shiny, brand new brooms. Eradicating manual scavenging
requires political will, which was not there in earlier regimes, and
is even less expected from the new ones: our prime minister once
called manual scavenging a “spiritual” experience. Given this
mindset, now is the time for the Supreme Court to act.
* Avinash Pandey is program coordinator of the Right to Food
Program of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a regional
non-governmental organization in Hong Kong that monitors and lobbies
for human rights in Asia. He can be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.