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‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyan invisibilises the linkage of Caste and Sanitation and glamourises broom among Scavenging Communities’

In Conversation with Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan

The 125 day Bhim Yatra which started from Dibrugarh and traveresed 30 states and 500 districts to reach Delhi is now over.  As everybody knows it culminated in a big rally coupled with people’s hearing where families of those victims who died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks shared their plight at the hands of state as well as civil society. The call of this Bhim Yatra raised by Safai Karmacharis – ‘Stop Killing Us’ – would could keep reverberating for quite some time. (

Here follows an interview with Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan

 How do you see the impact of  ‘Bhim Yatra’ ?

As far as those people who are still condemned to do scavenging is concerned, the 125 day Bhim Yatra has made two significant impacts :

– It has made people aware that a new act (2013 act) has come into existence for elimination of manual scavenging and they should make use of it for their liberation.

– Second significant impact is that people are realising that we should not do this work, we should leave this work altogether. Babasaheb’s teachings that depressed classes should leave all such professions which are stigmatised and which further help stigmatise them has reached broader cross sections of people engaged in cleaning and scavenging. The slogan ‘ Leave the Broom, Take the Pen’ is slowly reverberating across people especially the younger ones.

 How do you look at the response of the civil society towards manual scavenging in general and Bhim Yatra in particular ?

As anybody can see civil society can play an important role in eradication of this practice by popularising the law(s) or policies formulated to eliminate it or become proactive by intimating the police if violations of the law occurs but it does not do it. The fact that there was no conviction under the 1993 act and the passage of the 2013 act has also not made any change in the situation on the ground is definitely a reflection of its ‘silence’ or its ‘connivance’ in continuation of this practice.

Question arises why the civil society – which seems aware enough to join other causes – prefers silence when the issue crops up. My understanding is that civil society is definitely aware of this practice but seems more worried about the immediate future regarding removal of human waste and prefers to keep mum about it. It becomes worried over the possibility that if the Safai Karmcharis decide to leave the profession one day, who will clean their shit and perhaps they will have to get ready to dirty their own hands.

Secondly, it rather exhibits a very typical behaviour when the issue of manual scavenging comes up. It keeps discussing the way people are condemned to do such ‘dirty’ work but does not promote such people who leave this profession.

Coming to the Bhim Yatra, it did move many among them and many members of it even joined the processions held at different places and also addressed meetings. Yatra also evoked positive response in a section of the media.

 What is your future plan after the Yatra ?

We have given memorandum to different authorities and asked them to take immediate steps to eliminate this ongoing practice. We clearly want that there should be no more further delays, no more shifting of deadlines. It will be nearly seventy years since our independence but the scavenging communities are still yearning for real freedom from ageold slavery of a different kind which is leading to untimely deaths of manual scavengers. We should also never forget that safai karmcharis of all kinds have a shorter life span than other workers since under the name of occupational hazards they are exposed to poisonous gases and dangerous substances and also meet with accidents.

One thing is clear if the government does not listen to us we will come in our thousands and thousands to Delhi and would sit before the parliament to pressurise it so that it mends ways. In fact, we have been emphasising this point throughout our public meetings held during the Yatra that Ours is a Struggle for Dignity and it is a struggle which we only have to take forward and get ready for sacrifices. Yes, other justice loving people would definitely join us, but if we are not ready to protest, struggle and sacrifice how can the rest of people help us.

There are many other routes open to continue the struggle. e.g. We also plan to approach the Courts for strict implementation of the 2013 act. We also realise that merely giving petitions, moving courts or organising sit-ins is not going to solve the problem, it is time that Safai Karmcharis organise themselves at the national level and declare a strike, then only the civil society as well as the state would get up from its deep slumber.

There are many likeminded parties and organisations who are working for the cause of Safai Karmcharis and we also plan to contact them or interact with them so that there is large scale mobilisation at the national level.

At the immediate level we also plan to focus on the six states where according to government survey only no of dry latrines is significant.

What is your assessment of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (‘Clean India Campaign’) which was launched with much fanfare by the present government ?

The basic problem with Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is that it decontextualises the issue of sanitation from its social roots. Look since 1990s – after centenary year celebrations around Babasaheb Ambedkar, we initiated this campaign of Safai Karmacharis and through agitation, propaganda slowly built up the argument that in the Indian context  sanitation is a caste based, patriarchy based ‘profession’ and gradually this argument received wider acceptability also. The cumulative impact of our intervention as well as other initiatives could be noticed in the fact that the Central Government deemed it necessary to have a new law replacing the earlier law vis-a-vis manual scavenging, where the very definition of manual scavenging was widened and sewer workers and worker cleaning septic tank were also included in it.

The communities which are engaged in the work of cleaning because of the hierarchial caste system based on purity and pollution also witnessed new awakening and at many places people especially women came together to demolish dry latrines and deciding not to compel the younger ones of the family to continue with this profession.

The way Swacch Bharat Campaign looks at the work of cleanliness is deeply problematic. It calls it everybody’s work – one can even look at the Swacchta Pledge administered by honourable PM to everyone when he launched the 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). This whole approach not only invisiblises the interlinkages which exist in India between cleanliness and caste, where you have condemned n number of communities – called by different names at different places – to do this work and also covers up the achievements of movements of Safai Karmcharis which have tried to contextualise the issue of cleanliness in this part of South Asia and highlighted the fact that without addressing the issue of caste it is impossible to deal with the question of cleanliness here.

You can also notice the gap between what is being said and how things unfold on the ground. The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan was launched, celebrities came, there were photoop sessions with brooms in their hands and today who is cleaning – not the celebrities, not the stars but it is we who are doing it.

In a way, it tries to further glamourise broom among those communities which have been doing it since ages and we declare that we will not do it.

(Based on the discussion with Mr Bezwada Wilson

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