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Swacchata mission: Failure to see how manual scavenging impacts women’s health

By Gagan Sethi and Sanjana Biswas* 
Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) was launched on 2nd October, 2014 on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Rajghat, New Delhi, before subsequently proceeding to a Valmiki Basti, where Mahatma Gandhi had once stayed and initiated a ‘cleanliness drive’. Launched as a cleanliness drive, the campaign is a re-launch of the ‘Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan’ but with more concrete goals. The campaign aims to obtain 100 percent eradication of open defecation by 2019 with ‘eradication of Manual Scavenging, modern and Scientific Municipal Solid Waste Management’as it’s other objectives.
Even though it is a cleanness drive it has remained restricted to activities such as sweeping and construction of new toilets and curiously doesn’t include environmental health and pollution in its premise or in its site of action. Even though significant efforts have been taken in terms of air pollution the actions have remained largely centered around the urban areas. In the rural areas, the measure to provide clean fuel by extension of LPG is a welcome move but perpetuates the stereotype of women in the rural household only as a mother or a wife.
The campaign has been launched as a ‘tribute to Mahatma Gandhi’ and at many levels echoes Mahatma, whether in the official logo of the campaign or the event of evoking Mahatma’s opinions on ‘sanitation’ in the Prime Minister’s speeches, or the Prime Minister yielding a broom, but whether it has been consciousness towards the environment, or decentralization of power, or the question of ‘untouchability’ it has strangely remained contradictory to Gandhi’s own stances.

The contradictions and divergences between Gandhi and Modi

In the context of environment some of the decisions taken have been completely anti-Gandhian. According to the Down to Earth Report Card, not much improvement has taken place in terms of the environmental or green clearances, during the transition from UPA to NDA. The forest clearance policy has in fact become arbitrary with the timeline for the approval of the projects reduced to 45 days, which means that a project will be deemed approved if no clearance report emerges within 45 days. Clearances in the mining sector have expanded significantly with more than 300 projects of coal and non-coal mining, both new and old cleared.
Though the NDA government also seemed keen on cleaning the Ganges, it did not do any work regarding checking the industries which create pollution to begin with and still lacks a ‘comprehensive plan’. The ‘Smart Cities Mission’ has a mandate on introducing 10% of the construction material in urban infrastructure with ‘renewable resources’ but its outcome to be ‘green’ remains without explanation and is elusive. No movement towards the devolution of power has occurred, which means that no progress in the bottom-up approach has been made by NDA. SBA diverges and contradicts Gandhi’s ideas of environmentalism and is far away from achieving Gandhi’s concept of ‘swaraj’ as well. The promotion of industries in fact goes against Gandhi’s model of self-sufficient villages.
Construction of toilets under SBA
The construction of toilets and the stance that SBA has towards manual scavenging has also been against Gandhi’s own strategies. Though a sizeable amount of money has been released for the construction of private toilets, Mahatma was against private toilets. 
An excerpt from Arun Gandhi’s autobiography reveals Gandhi’s nuanced stance on private toilets:
‘At the ashram everyone practiced complete equality. There was no such thing as men’s work or women’s work. Any work that needed to be done was done by whoever was available or free. Batches of men and women were assigned duties, rotating every fortnight. There were groups to clean and cut vegetables, cook all meals, wash the utensils, wash all the clothes, clean the campus, work on the land to produce fruits, vegetables and milk for consumption by ashram inmates and anything else that needed to be done. The idea was to foster cooperation and understanding. It was not always easy going but people attempted to learn and adjust. Perhaps, the most onerous of all tasks at the ashram was the cleaning of the bucket toilets, which were used by everyone.
‘Gandhi had deliberately not permitted toilets in private homes, so that everyone had to use the row of public toilets at one end of the ashram. Gandhi’s reasoning was that cleaning public toilets was the contentious issue on which the caste oppression was based. So, the best way of getting rid of the prejudices, equalizing society and teaching people a lesson in humility was to make them do the work they so despised. Millions in India are labeled “untouchables” because of the work they are forced to do by the caste system. Only the Seven Deadly Social Sins/Pat Carter low castes must do the lowly jobs like street cleaning, garbage pick-up and cleaning public toilets. Because the jobs are menial and considered “unclean” the pay is negligible, forcing the “low caste” to live in abject poverty and ignorance, the vicious cycle that condemns them forever.’
While Modi might have fulfilled the mandate of setting an example in self-help and self-sufficiency by picking up the broom, the government led by him differs from Gandhi on more accounts than in resembling him. Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) borrows heavily from Gandhi’s symbols without imbibing any of the principles he followed. The idea of Swacch Bharat has remained tied to the mundane discourse of sanitation and hygiene largely prevalent in the urban middle class. Modi’s association with untouchability or SBA’s strategies towards manual scavenging also remains without the perspectives on gender and labour that Gandhi had and therefore remains very problematic.

Narratives of spirituality versus narratives of humiliation

“I do not believe that they (Valmiks) have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of work generation after generation. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmiks’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.”
In 2007, the above paragraph was written by the current Prime Minister and the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi for a certain book to be published by Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation but was retracted from publishing whereby about 5000 copies of the book was withdrawn from publication. Gandhi in his lifetime was in support of the caste-system but not in the manner it functioned. He talked about caste in public and seeked an end to untouchability and the prohibition of the castes considered untouchables from entering the temples or using the common resources of water such as public wells.
Gandhi called these so-called untouchable castes as ‘Harijans’ and launched cleanliness drives around the country and cleaned his toilets himself to end the stigma and humiliation associated with the act of cleaning toilets and manual scavenging. Instead of forming an active engagement with untouchability and humiliation Modi government has only reinforced the system that reproduces untouchability and humiliation associated with certain professions deemed unclean, by invisibilising it.
According to International Dalit Solidarity Network, “It is estimated that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging – a term used to describe the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets, lined with sacking, carried on the head.”

In the various narratives collected by Human Rights Watch “Cleaning Human Waste, “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India” the picture that comes out is different from the happy shiny pictures of Modi and his men. The narration is that of gross indignity and ill-health surrounding which are a gamut of other issues such as the denial of minimum wage and lack of compensation and opportunities for change of livelihood.
In the SBA manual (urban) there being a mention of ‘eradication of manual scavenging’, yet no section has been devoted to the processes or efforts that need to be taken for such eradication. In the manual, even though women have been seen as a ‘vulnerable group’ in terms of those who deserve toilets in their homes, no efforts have been taken to understand the site specific socio-economic profile, let alone the specific needs and desires of such a vulnerable group. Through in national media, the act of not having toilet as a status of shame has taken strong roots. In Kanpur, for example, a bride walked out of her community marriage because the groom did not have a toilet. She chose to marry another groom who had a private toilet in his house.
From UPA’s people-centric mode the policies have become only industry-centric. SBA in particular seeks to achieve its goal by Public-Private-Partnership model. While Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan was community driven in its design, SBA has district as its base-unit. Further by using humiliation as a strategy rather than fighting against it SBA contradicts Gandhi in a severe manner. While NBA focused on increasing incentives in the form of ‘Nirmal Gram Puraskars’ SBA seeks to find its implementation with strategies such as “‘’Triggering’ or ‘Nudging’ of Communities for Behaviour change”.
Expanding on this strategy the manual continues to suggest the following: “The feeling of shame and disgust can be introduced in the target population with focused communication at the community level where an entire community can be triggered into positive action towards elimination of open defecation and restoring community pride.” Humiliation is being openly used for pushing people into submission.
Therefore, SBA marks a departure from the previous sanitization programmes, also because it shifts the discourse from a community driven, decentralized model to a lesser decentralized (with district as the base unit) and self-oriented program. On one hand it has dismantled the structure of the previous programs and on another, it has started a new discourse of ‘Swacchh’ or ‘cleanliness’ where ‘cleanliness’ achieves a cosmetic connotation with no significant steps to improve environmental health or to deal with environmental pollution.
‘Cleanliness’ has rather become an act that can be measured, with the construction of toilets and their usage equal to national ‘pride’ while acts of manual scavenging still stuffed in the discourse of shame and humiliation. Further new categories of shame and humiliation have been introduced in National Media. In all the pictures we see Modi yielding a broom and tin plate, it is a parody of the manual scavengers humiliation because by invisibiling the pain and recasting it as a matter of national pride it only perpetuates the system that continues to oppress and destroy certain castes and genders.
If shaming becomes so normal then women are going to bear the brunt too. A lot of patriarchal slogans already exist from the time of UNICEF’S total sanitation campaign whether it has been Vidya Balan’s advertisement or slogans, such as the following: “A woman has to wear a veil to protect her dignity, but what about her dignity when she lifts her skirt to squat in public spaces?” (Nal Beri, in Bikaner).
This sort of a shaming co-exists with matters of caste discrimination which keeps reproducing itself insidiously. Invisibilising a problem and not acknowledging the problem is equal to perpetuating the crime. But the problems faced by women include are not limited to open defecation. In many areas, more than open defecation it is manual scavenging that bothers and impacts women’s health. To address it we will have to actually talk about it instead of skirting around it. Modern modes of solution or exit from caste and untouchability are already issues fraught with complications since caste is a pre-modern problem and not a modern one.

Dominant realities versus unrealistic misguided expectations

Presently a Swacchh Bharat Cess is being collected from every citizen and this fund is apparently being used for constructing new toilets. Construction of more toilets can never be the answer according to a team of researchers from ‘Research Insititute For Compassionate Economics’ who researched on the situation of open defecation in the states of sanitation attitudes and practices in over 3,200 households in rural Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Haryana (the SQUAT Survey) in 2014.
The survey revealed that people do not already use the existing community toilets because sharing space is not an acceptable contract to them. The usage of toilets is deeply segregated on the lines of religion, caste, gender etc. further despite having toilets many members don’t believe in the concept and enjoy defecating outside. Rather, people are divided along lines of gender, religion, caste, and economic status that make cooperation complicated. Community or public toilets in urban India are difficult but achievable goals but in the rural context such a mission is impossible without a sensitive handling of the community and increasing community participation, where there is no single community but many communities already divided on the lines of caste, religion, landholding etc.
The core of clean India is providing clean potable drinking water as first priority and the WHO standards of water for other daily use purposes which includes cleaning of and use of TOILETS, amongst various estimates that figure alone is considered to be seven litres per head on a minimum. The previous and this government have failed to allow local solutions and allocate resources at the village or ward level to find and regulate this.
In April, 2016 after a PIL was filed in Maharashtra High Court, BCCI was ordered to shift the venue of IPL from Mumbai as it called the gallons of water used in setting up of the venue a ‘criminal waste’ since in the nearby drought-stricken districts of Marathwada people had no access to water for four days at stretch. While grand designs of development have been designed, no effort has happened to empower communities to find their own sustainable solutions. Leaders love to play GOD and the Messiah and therefore leave actual solutions to Dashrath Manjhi’s who dug a road through a mountain for 22 years so that other wives may not die for inaccessibility of medical attention.
Focusing the public discourse and attention to symptoms of vulnerabilities while pursuing policies of unbridled land alienation, smart cities, largescale displacement, re-skilling India from an agriculture based to a industrial and service-sector based economy, moving the Nation from livelihood to jobs, again leaving out women to their gendered and caste roles of managing theirs and others toilets are phenomena which Paulo Friere would have called phenomena of ‘False Consciousness’.
Thus Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan as a mission and a ‘Jan Andolan’ which uses photographs and huge budgets on DAVPs expense further creating a myth that India is unclean because it has no toilets, and that women should shame and be ashamed of marrying in families without one, hardens the frame that women marry into households ( labour exchange) and not with an individual, thereby reproducing the oppressive caste-gender frame in which the existing troubles and violations already exist .


The national integrated watershed development programme was designed and delivered as a community (specifically) women-led decentralized model; its integrated drinking water and total sanitation solutions have been demonstrated across regions and communities. Several excellent models from Kutch to Karnataka implemented by village watershed committees facilitated by voluntary organisations with representation from all castes and landless, also known as watershed plus, are awaiting to be upscaled and de projectised into a movement which could have been part of the PM’s adorable man ki baat.
Similarly, there are enough learnings from community-owned slum upgradation programs which have demonstrated integrated sanitation, drinking water and energy solutions. . Maybe copywriters couldn’t find a catchy way to project them to the urban middle class, who enjoy the Rambo image of a one man army called Modi who will deliver us from all evils and make us a clean and pure nation.

* IDEAL -Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad. Discussion note presented at the discussion and Policy forum of the Institute of Social Studies Trust



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