A few months ago I was speaking to Sunil Yadav in a workshop on health and migration where we were specifically asked to focus on issues of sanitation workers of Mumbai. Sunil is a motor loader in Mumbai Municipal Corporation and a Research Scholar in TISS. I had used the photographs taken by Sudharak Olwe to explain the different kinds of work that sanitation workers of Mumbai are doing. The photographs depict the disturbing reality of everyday life of sanitation workers. During the question-and-answer round, one of Sudharak’s friend and colleague had asked us why we used these images which were taken 20-25 years back. “Hasn’t the situation changed?”, he asked. I replied that the photographs are still valid since they do depict the different variety of work done by sanitation workers even now. The house gallis, the drains, the waste; everything is the same.
While thinking about it for my research on sanitation workers and the solid waste management system of Mumbai, I realized that not much has changed over the last 25 years. In fact it has worsened with the increase in garbage generation and the privatization of the work force. There is no new mechanism launched to address these issues. In this article I reflect on the events over the last two years in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan era and what it means for the sanitation worker who cleans the filthy roads every day without the selfie sticks and media attention that celebrities or politicians get while cleaning the street.
The launch and branding of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is not different from any campaign that Modi has done in the past, of creating a huge media tsunami through strategic brand management. Modi in his first Independence Day speech talked about how Swacch Bharat will attract tourism, ultimately helping in employment generation. He says:
“Brothers and sisters, we want to promote tourism. Tourism provides employment to the poorest of the poor. Gram seller earns something, an auto-rickshaw driver earns something, a pakora seller earns something and a tea seller also earns something. When there is talk of tea sellers, I feel a sense of belongingness. Tourism provides employment to the poorest of the poor. But there is a big obstacle in promoting tourism and in our national character and that is – the filthiness all around us. Whether after Independence, after so many years of independence, when we stand at the threshold of one and half decade of 21st century, we still want to live in filthiness?”[i]
The genesis of Swacch Bharat lies in the tourism industry with the creation of an image of “clean India” like the grotesque production of the clean Modi image during the 2014 election, without any remnants of the blood stains from the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Even after almost 68 years of Independence, the State forgets about the everyday filthiness into which the lives and bodies of sanitation worker are coerced into. So I want to briefly inform you about the sanitation worker’s life and how they have been strategically invisible in this tourism promotion campaign by Swacch Bharat.
A day in the life of a morning-shift sanitation worker starts at 6 am with him going to his chowky and collecting his broom and other cleaning tools. Worried about the vehicles zipping past him, he concentrates on the work and completes the task as soon as possible. The stench from his hands is so strong that he can neither eat nor go close to his children. It is a reality that sanitation workers don’t even get proper equipment and safety gear; for example the boots for the workers are ordered randomly without asking them for their shoe size. The workers have to find their size and if they can’t then they have to work without shoes at all. In the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan campaign, cleaning starts with a photo shoot and people involved in it are worried about trying to get the best picture clicked while they are cleaning the already sanitized road with a sanitized broom. Recently in one such event, done by a progressive news channel, they Twitter-updated a celebrity doing the work. No wonder Modi has been going gaga over the role media plays in the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.
Jaggi Vasudev, a spiritual leader, commented on the event, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is one of those campaigns that strikes a chord with people; it touches their pride. This is how mass movements are born”.[ii] I think Modi has been able to strike a chord of nationalism and caste pride. There is a caste patriarchal domination over the body and labour; the essence and being of the sanitation worker is removed and presented as a simple work of cleaning through this media campaign.
Sunil had to join work because his father died while he was very young. This is a common story in the sanitation worker’s colony. Deaths due to alcoholism and TB in sanitation work are as common as Modi’s picture in the newspapers. Sunil didn’t give up studying while working. He completed his Masters and M.Phil from TISS without any study leave. His application for study leave has been constantly rejected by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) on flimsy grounds. The only time he was given leave by the BMC was during a three months exchange program when he went to South Africa. According to the Municipal Corporation of Brihan Mumbai Service (Conduct) Rules, 1989 section 175 (c) an employee is eligible for study leave for studies which are capable of widening his mind in a manner likely to improve his abilities as an employee and section 176 (d) says that an employee is eligible for 24 months of study leave. His latest leave application was rejected under section 190 (1) and (2) which specifies that leave on full or half pay if due and admissible, otherwise leave without pay may be granted and leave cannot be claimed as a right and may be granted subject to office exigencies. His promotion application for the post of Labour officer has also been rejected because he doesn’t have enough experience. The ‘casteist’ structure of the BMC is making sure that Sunil follows his family occupation and doesn’t deviate from it. Deviation from the Hindu nationalist social order in the current context might be considered anti-national by the State. Recently, in Limekheda, Modi said that “Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas” is resonating across the country and they have increased the basic requirement list from power, water and roads to include education and health[iii]. Doesn’t Sunil’s case epitomize Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas?
Finally if we look at the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan Policy document, the following points have been mentioned:
- In its mission objectives, it says:
- 1.2 Eradication of Manual Scavenging,
- 1.3 Modern and Scientific Municipal Solid Waste Management.
- It’s Mission Strategy says:
- 5.5 Special focus group which says rehabilitation of manual scavengers, providing temporary accommodation to for migrants and homeless and formalizing Solid Waste Management system.
None of the websites that exist on Swacch Bharat talk about these components. Why is there such resounding silence on such an important issue? No pledge has been taken to eradicate manual scavenging by the Swacch Bharat campaigners or celebrities. No platform exists on the Swacch Bharat app to end manual scavenging. They have not even given any data regarding this. In contrast if we take the case of homeless people, they have only been regularly evicted in the name of Swacch Bharat campaign. Providing them sanitation and shelter doesn’t even feature on the campaign agenda. None of the success stories are talking about rehabilitation of manual scavengers or sanitation workers. The silence is deafening and jarring on this issue. So is Swacch Bharat about relying on a ‘made-in-India’ selfie for the Digital Jio generation? The two years of Swacch Bharat constantly incite and remind me of Gopal Guru’s quote “The Untouchable is dirt and that dirt is the Untouchable, both completely indistinguishable from each other. Yet, ironically this shit is not disposable, as it is required to dispose of the emitted shit” (2011, pg13)[iv].
[iv] Guru, Gopal. Humiliation: Claims and Context. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2011.
Featured photo by Sudharak Olwe