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India: Silencing Caste, Sanitising Oppression – #SwachhBharat Abhiyan

modi

What is important to note that the Conference of the Untouchables which met in Mahad resolved that no untouchable shall skin the dead animals of the Hindus, shall carry it or eat the carrion. The object of these resolutions was twofold. The one object was to foster among the Untouchables self respect and self esteem. This was a minor object. The major object was to strike a blow at the Hindu Social Order.

The Hindu Social Order is based upon a division of labour which reserves for the Hindus clean and respectable jobs and assigns to the untouchables dirty and mean jobs and thereby clothes the Hindus with dignity and heaps ignominy upon the untouchables.

(The Revolt of the Untouchables, Excerpted from Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability : Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 5 (Mumbai : Govt of Maharashtra, 1989, 256-58)

1. The inauguration of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, (Clean India Campaign) with much fanfare, with ministers, bureaucrats and others holding Jhadoos evoked an interesting reaction from a ragpicker Sanjay who lives in Mehrauli with his parents. “These are the same people from whose houses we pick up garbage every day. This is part of our life. We don’t really understand why they are making it such a big deal,” (PM’s Swachch Bharat Abhiyan has no place for Delhi’s 3 lakh rag pickers,Mallica Joshi , Hindustan Times New Delhi, October 03, 2014))

Sanjay happens to be one among a population of around 3,00,000 rag pickers (according to rough estimates) in Delhi, who are largely invisible and as expected live on the margins of society. It is a different matter that they play a major role in garbage management – right from collecting waste to segregating it for recycling. NGOs working with them feel that the city can easily come to a halt without them because they are the one ’who perform the basic task of taking garbage from people’s houses to dumps in most parts of the city.’ At the time of Commonwealth Games held in Delhi few years back, the then state government had even provided few hundred ragpickers with dress and safety equipment etc ’acknowledging’ the services they rendered to keep the city clean.

Time seems to have changed now. As the above mentioned report further adds :

’The government seems to be in complete denial of their presence even as they reap the benefits of their hard work.’ (-do-)

The complete marginalisation of the ragpickers from the much tommed tommed Swachh Bharat Abhiyan does not appear surprising. It is rather symptomatic of the many other ’silences’, ’erasures’ which accompanied its launching. While analysts have rightly pointed out the manner in which legacy of the Mahatma is being ’reduced’ to cleanliness obliterating his lifelong struggle against colonialism and communalisms of every kind and for an inclusive polity not much attention has been paid to the fact that the thrust of the campaign is to project a very samras (harmonious) picture of our society where cleanliness or the lack of it is connected with our ’duty’ (Kartavya) towards ’Bharat Mata’.

Perhaps one can have a look at the oath administered by the PM to everyone who joined this campaign.

“Ab hamara kartavya hain ki gandagi ko dhoor karke Bharat Mata ki sewa karein.” (Now, it is our duty to serve Mother India by removing the dirt.)

Did anyone hear any word about the pernicious ’caste system’ during all the media frenzy which witnessed its launching ? Definitely not. In fact caste and related discriminations have become so common and ingrained in our psyche that the media did not find anything newsworthy in it. Perhaps when every other officer was getting ready to have his/her own moment with a broom in hand the mediawallahs decided not to talk about this unique system of hierarchy – legitimised by the wider society and sanctified by religion -which has condemned a section of its own people to the ’profession’ of cleaning, sweeping and scavenging. What to tell the outside world that half of India still defecates in the open and there are lakhs of people who are still engaged in this ’profession’ of shit collection. In fact, we have designated communities who have been ’forced’ in this dehumanising work since centuries together

On closer look we can find that they go by many names in various parts of the country. As Gita Ramaswamy discusses in her book ’India Stinking’ (Navayana, 2007) : They are Bhangi, Valmiki, methar, chuhra in Delhi, Dhanuk in UP, han, hadi in Bengal; mehtar, bhangi in Assam; methar in Hyderabad; Paki in coastal Andhra ; thotti in Tamil Nadu; mira, lalbegi, chuhra, balashahi in Punjab. Names may be different but they share the same fate : they belong to the bottom of the Hindu social hierarchy and are untouchables. And under the caste hierarchy, castes that consider themselves superior does enjoy a wider range of choice of occupations but the erstwhile untouchables, today’s dalits have the least desirable occupations – removal of human excreta, cleaning, sweeping, leatherwork, skinning of dead animals, removal of human and cattle corpses, rearing of pigs etc.

We know that despite sixty plus years of independence, while moneybags here can easily compete with moneybags in the advanced world, while rulers of India yearn to make 21 st century as India’s century, there has not been any qualitative change in the lifeworlds of the majority of the dalits who are still lying at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Yes, a small section among them has definitely taken advantage of the affirmative action programme and is on the path of upward mobility, but for the majority amongst them, their is no qualitative change in their situation marked by deprivation and discrimination.

2.

Interestingly in his hurry to ’do a Gandhi’ Mr Modi launched the campaign from the same Valmiki Basti where Gandhi had stayed for a while, without bothering that such a move would further stigmatise the community. And this at a time when there is a great churning going on within the community especially its youth to leave this ’profession’ and take up other dignified work. Not very many people outside the community are even aware that there is growing talk of ’Jhadu Chodo, Kalam Uthao ( Leave the Broom, Hold the Pen) reverberating within them. Organisations like Safai Karmachari Aandolan and others have even undertaken the task of demolition of dry latrines at various places and there have been occasions when people have spontaneously come forward to collectively burn the broom and basket which is used in scavenging.

While media did not bother to question the venue chosen by PM to start his campaign, many close watchers of the situation did not feel surprised as they knew how Mr Modi, looks at this occupation, which finds mention in his book ’Karmyog’ where he calls it as some kind of “spiritual experience”.

Not very people know that it was the year 2007 when collection of Narendra Modi’s speeches to IAS officials at various points of time were compiled in a book form named ’Karmyog’ and were published by the Gujarat government. Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, a top ranking PSU was roped in to fund 5,000 copies of the book. (http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/entry/modi-s-spiritual-potion-to-woo-karmayogis). Sample one of his speech, where talking about the Safai Kamdars Modi exhorts:

“I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation….At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) 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.” (Page 48-49, Karmyog)

Later Modi’s remark got published in the Times of India in mid-November 2007, which were translated and republished in few Tamil newspapers. There was a massive reaction of Dalits in Tamil Nadu for calling their menial job “spiritual experience”. Modi’s effigies were burnt in different parts of the state. Sensing trouble Modi immediately withdrew 5,000 copies of the book, but still sticked to his opinion. Two years later, addressing 9,000-odd safai karmacharis, (cleanliness workers) he likened the safai karmacharis’ job of cleaning up others dirt’ to that of a temple priest. He told them,

“A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers, you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike.”

It would have been enlightening for Mr Modi if he could have browsed through Dr Ambedkar’s writings just to know how he had reacted when Mahatma Gandhi had similarly praised ’scavenging as the noblest service to society’ and said ’How sacred is this work of cleanliness !’(Navajivan, 8 th January 1925)

To preach that poverty is good for the Shudra and for none else, to preach that scavenging is good for the untouchables and for none else and to make them accept these onerous impositions as voluntary purposes of life, by appeal to their failings is an outrage and a cruel joke on the helpless classes which none but Mr Gandhi can perpetuate with equanimity and impunity. In this connection one is reminded of the words of Voltaire ..:”Oh! mockery to say to people that the sufferings of some brings joy to others and works good to the whole. What solace is it to a dying man to know that from his decaying body a thousand worms will come into life.”

(What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, Dr Ambedkar : Writings and Speeches, Vol 9, (Mumbai : Govt of Maharashtra, 1990) P. 290-93

3.

The ’silencing’ or ’sanitising’ of the discourse of caste in the packaging and presentation of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the dominant discourse around it reminds one of the persistence of untouchability in Gujarat and the manner in which it was made to ’disppear’ sometime back . (As an aside it may be mentioned here that Modi served as chief minister of Gujarat from the year 2001 to 2014.)

Appears unbelievable?

Perhaps you can have a look at a Gujarat government sponsored report titled “Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat”, authored by Centre for Environment Planning and Technology University (CEPT) University scholars led by Prof R Parthasarathy, which calls caste discrimination a matter of “perceptions”.

In his blog ’True Lies’ senior journalist Rajiv Shah (http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/entry/untouchability-and-modi-s-babus) has provided detailed critique of this study.

To put in a nutshell this CEPT report was a governmental response to an exhaustive study titled ’Understanding Untouchability’ done by Ahmedabad based NGO ’Navsarjan Trust’ with the help of Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. (2009) which demonstrated with concrete data the wide prevalence of untouchability both in public and private spheres in interaction between scheduled castes (SCs) and non-scheduled castes (non-SCs), as well as within SCs: among the several jatis in rural Gujarat.

It is important to note that the results of the Navsarjan study were widely covered by the media .

Looking at the fact that the ongoing debate had the potential of putting a spanner in the well cultivated image of a Samras (harmonious) Gujarat under Modi, a panicky government asked CEPT to review and verify Navsarjan’s findings. In fact, the government seemed so keen to give a clean chit to itself that it adopted a two pronged approach to tackle the uncomfortable situation in which it found itself. Apart from commissioning the above mentioned study it constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the then minister for social justice, Fakirbhai Vaghela and secretaries of different concerned departments to refute the findings of the report. The government instructed its officers to get affidavits from scheduled caste village residents regarding non-existence of untouchability.

Commenting on the report Rajiv Shah says that

“[t]he nearly 300-page report, ..far from being a review of “Understanding Untouchability”, is more of an effort to justify the evil practice.”

As opposed to the survey of 1,589 villages done by Navsarjan, the CEPT team was made to survey just five villages, dig out a plethora of caste-wise data on agriculture, irrigation, employment and distribution of government schemes but were instructed not to collect any data on “”caste discrimination” – a term used by them in lieu of untouchability.

The reluctance of the scholars to even mention the U(ntouchability) word can be gauged from the observations made by leading sociologist Ghanshyam Shah as well, who has also written a critique of the CEPT report ’Understanding or ignoring untouchability? How Gujarat government-sponsored study examines discrimination in a ‘very casual way’’ (in www.counterview.org, Nov 13, 2013) :

..[i]n the scholars’ view (and that of the government) there is nothing wrong if the Dalits are forced to carry own vessels or are made to be served at fag end of the festivity. In fact, if the scholars are to be believed, Dalit elders advise the “younger ones” not to participate in village festivals like Navratri or Garba, celebrated in other localities, “for fear of possible quarrel with non-Dalits.” The youth agree in order to maintain social peace and order. To quote from the report, “Those Dalit youth who go there, do so as spectators and not participate in Garba…”

He also adds :

“CEPT has completely ignored to study the practice of untouchability. Perhaps for them like the Government of Gujarat it is a non-issue. And, they have carried out mainly a socio-economic survey in five villages. The authors do not feel the need to argue why they have confined their study to socio-economic survey. Why have they not correlated socio-economic data with the presence or absence of untouchability?”

While the CEPT experts could not discover untouchability in the five villages covered, the Navsarjan team which toured these villages in June 2013 found how the dalits live under subjugation and a state of helplessness as they know that the government would not protect them if they assert for their rights. Ghanshyam Shah adds:

In fact, an important omission from the CEPT report was that of Valmikis themselves, who are considered lowest in the social ladder under a Varnacracy. As opposed to these worst victims of untouchability, the report focuses on the Vankars, a “socially acceptable” Dalit community, a weaving class.

The omission of Valmikis in a report commissioned by the government cannot be considered inadvertent. Their still remaining confined largely to the work of sweeping and cleaning ; collecting and handling dust, garbage and filth of the cities, towns and villages to make them livable for other dwellers and in the process facing daily humiliations and even deaths by ’accidents’ or getting afflicted with occupational diseases is a reality which cannot be ignored anymore. Perhaps the scholars might have felt that their sheer presence in a governmental report was anachronous to the media propelled image of ’a best-governed state, occupying number one position in the country on ‘development’’.

4.

Commenting on the ’Clean India Campaign’ Rohit Prajapati, an environmental activist from Gujarat, has raised an altogether different point in his writeup ’Mr. Modi Preaches a Clean India, But His Record on Waste management and Pollution in Gujarat is Dirty’ (http://sacw.net/article9679.html). He has discussed a similar campaign launched by him in 2007 calling it ’Nirmal Gujarat -2007’ and looked at the track record of his government in controlling pollution. According to him Modi similarly made ’..tall claims during that campaign. But reality is best seen in Ahmedabad at illegal solid waste dumping site, the ‘Gyaspur-Pirana Dumping Site’ – a Waste Mountain near Sabarmati River adjacent to the main road.’

The writeup discusses basic facts as they were revealed in the ‘Report of the Task Force on Waste to Energy’ dated 12 May 2014 by the Planning Commission of India which states

“As per CPCB report 2012 – 13 municipal areas in the country generate 1,33,760 metric tonnes per day of MSW, of which only 91,152 TPD waste is collected and 25,884 TPD treated.”..“Further, if the current 62 million tonnes annual generation of MSW continues to be dumped without treatment; it will need 3,40,000 cubic meter of landfill space everyday (1240 hectare per year). Considering the projected waste generation of 165 million tonnes by 2031, the requirement of land for setting up landfill for 20 years (considering 10 meter high waste pile) could be as high as 66 thousand hectares of precious land, which our country cannot afford to waste.”

It would be opportune here to quote a large extract from the said writeup here :

Mr. Modi, things are not as simple as you say. This waste generation figure covers only 31.15% population of India. Considering the waste generation figures of all of India, these figures will be even more daunting. The Planning Commission (which Mr. Modi wishes to abolish) of India’s report further states “A study, of the status of implementation of the MSW Rules 2000 by the mandated deadline by the States, was carried out in class 1 cities of the country. It revealed that in 128 cities except for street sweeping and transportation, compliance was less than 50% and in respect of disposal compliance was a dismal 1.4 %.”What about the government’s major role in policy making for the reduction of waste and implementation of ‘The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules 2000’? Your track record in the implementation of these rules in the Gujarat is worst.

The consistent follow up by the pollution-affected people, people’s organisations and NGOs regarding the increasing pollution levels in the industrial areas of India forced the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the State Pollution Control Board in 1989 to initiate the process of indexing the critically polluted areas. At that time 24 industrial areas, including Vapi, Ankleshwar, Ludhiana, were declared ‘critically polluted’. In 2009 the CPCB and IIT-Delhi, in consistence with the demands of the people’s organisation’s working on environmental issues decided to use a new method of ‘indexing the pollution levels’ of these areas, which is now known as the ‘Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index’ (CEPI). The CEPI includes air, water, land pollution and health risks to the people living in the area. However, our demand has been to include the health of the workers, productivity of land and quality of food / agriculture produce in the index since the presence of high levels of chemicals and heavy metals in food produce has severe health implications. This is affecting not only people living around the industrial area but anyone consuming it – hence not restricting the impact to the particular industrial area.

In December 2009 the CEPI of 88 polluted industrial clusters was measured; it was then that the CPCB and the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) of Government of India were forced to declare 43 of those as ‘critically polluted clusters’ and another 32 industrial areas as ‘severely polluted clusters’.[6] Following this study the MoEF on 13 January 2010 was forced to issue a moratorium (prohibition on opening new industries and/or increasing the production capacity of the existing industries) on the 43 critically polluted areas. Similar reports were prepared by CPCB in 2011 and 2013 but these reports are completely ignored by past government and also by Modi Government.

In the concluding part of the article the writer discusses how after assuming reins of power, Mr Modi instead of undertaking the task of improving environment of these 88 industrial clusters, the government led by him started ’lifting of the moratorium of industrial cluster like Ghaziabad (UP), Indore (M.P.), Jharsuguda (Orissa), Ludhiana (Punjab), Panipat (Haryana), Patancheru – Bollaram (A.P.), Singrauli (UP & MP) and Vapi (Gujarat) as a first order of business on 10 June 2014. He underlines Vapi’s track records which demand more ‘stringent action’ against the polluting industries of Vapi & concerned officers of Gujarat Pollution Control Board and definitely not lifting of moratorium from Vapi. According to him ’the murky politics and economics of ‘GDP growth’ continue to prevail over the cause of ‘life and livelihood’ of ordinary people and ‘environment & conservation.’

His write-up concludes with few more figures and a BIG question:

In 2009, the Ankleswar’s industrial area, with 88.50 CEPI, topped the list of ‘critically polluted areas’ of India.

In 2011 and 2013, Vapi industrial area, with CEPI of 85.31, topped this list.

Thus Gujarat is able to top in 2009 in ‘critically polluted areas’ in India and continues to maintain its position in 2011 & 2013.

The Government of Gujarat deliberately ignored to comment or engages ever on these issues.

Mr. Modi what about the clean up of these industrial clusters of India? Do you have any plan to clean up this CRITICALLY and SEVERELY POLLUTED INDUSTRIAL CLUSTERS OF INDIA?

5.

To conclude, one can talk of similar silences, erasures if we probe further deep.

But that is not the aim of the article. The nationwide campaign which has been taken up is going to involve tremendous human as well as financial resources. We are being told that government employees are being exhorted to devote at least 100 hours every year – or two hours a week – to do this work and send proof to their seniors. It is going to cost 620 billion rupees ($10bn; £6.1bn) – the government has earmarked 146 m rupees and expects to get the remaining amount from the corporate sector, international development organisations and elsewhere. It is also being said that main goal of the programme, is to end open defecation in the country – as nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no access to toilets.

All sounds good and especially very soothing to the ears of NRIs who seem to be worried over the image India carries in the comity of nations.

But all these efforts do not seem to go anywhere because as we already said there is a conscious attempt not to address the key issues.

It appears that Mr Modi seems to be in a big hurry to leave an impact on history.

He might be successful like his predecessors. If today we remember or associate Garibi Hatao with Ms Indira Gandhi or ’Age of Computers’ with Rajeev Gandhi, similarly future generations would remember or associate the ’Clean India Campaign’ with Modi while still debating the ’dirtiest country in the world’ tag associated with the country.

 

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