Doctrine divides, Action unites


  October 2014


‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ and the Filth of Democracy in India

Avinash Pandey

A Dalit, or Untouchable, manually cleans a sewage system in India,
which proudly proclaims itself as the world’s largest democracy.
(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 <>.


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