The Swachh India campaign cannot succeed without addressing the challenges faced by sanitary workers
No one can dispute that it’s an idea long overdue. The evidence that Indian cities are turning into public garbage dumps can be found across the length and breadth of the country. Whether you walk through a crowded bazaar in Jaipur, trek in the remotest part of the Garhwal Himalayas, vacation on the beaches of Goa or go scuba diving in the Andamans , you cannot escape the scores of discarded bottles, wrappers and other forms of urban refuse left behind by callous tourists. That the major cause of this littering is the educated middle class – people who see nothing wrong in chucking out an empty wrapper from the comfort of their luxury car or dumping refuse at a street corner even as they employ an army of domestic help to keep their own houses clean – only adds to the gloom. For how can a country demand to be treated as a global super power when it lacks basic civic sense?
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Andolan with much fanfare on October 2 this year, we were willing to set aside our well-honed cynicism for a few moments. Could someone finally teach the “dirty Indian” to clean up her mess? Celebrities jumped in with broom-wielding selfies and Twitter-pledges (the hastag was trending, silly), but will this lead to lasting change, or simply degenerate into another publicity gimmick like the Ice Bucket Challenge?
As Urvashi Prasad outlines in this feature on Youthkiawaaz, the continued success of the program will depend upon sustained coordination between various stakeholders (NGOs, various government departments, funders and communities) and thinking beyond quick fix solutions like allocating funds and going on a toilet construction drive. Meanwhile, Kafila reminds us that economic growth is only worsening the problem.
But the biggest obstacle to Clean India is changing the behaviour of Indian citizens. To quote Prasad:
Even though it has hardly been a week since the launch of the campaign, we saw photographs of people leaving litter behind after the Prime Minister’s rally in Mumbai…. Ultimately, I believe that the success or failure of this campaign depends on each one of us. We can choose to be skeptical and not participate or we can ensure that we begin the change with ourselves and our surroundings. The Government also needs to have a clear plan for achieving the 2019 target… so that the campaign does not get reduced to a one-off popularity stunt.
Meanwhile, the Hindustan Times has rightly highlighted a gaping hole in this ambitious program : the unsafe working conditions and inadequate salaries of the sanitation workers who are tasked with keeping our cities clean. Vikas Pathak highlights the growing trend of outsourcing in this profession, leading to an increasing number of jobs being turned from regular to contractual. This not only lowers the salaries of these workers (to a maximum of Rs. 8,500 a month in a city like Delhi) in the midst of a high-inflation economy, it also deprives them of benefits such as annual hikes, medical assistance and accommodation.
The contractualisation of these vulnerable workers has gone unnoticed even though the salaries of senior government officials have gone through the roof with the Sixth Pay Commission. One wonders whether these two sets of rules within government service are not a violation of equality promised under Article 14.
In an earlier article, Aarish Chhabra tell us about the death of Satbir Singh, a 35 year old sweeper with the Chandigarh public health department who died after inhaling toxic gas from a manhole, leaving behind a wife and 4 children. But no one knows – or cares – about Satbir’s death, because “Cleaning filth is no hero’s job.”
The vague enforcement of security norms for the people who keep our cities clean continues to put their lives at risk: when was the last time you saw one of these workers wearing a mask or a security harness? In return, they get paltry salaries, no medical assistance and, worst of all, nary a recognition of their contribution from society. The reasons for this are not hard to find – caste based India has always treated the people who clean up our mess with disdain.
As Chhabra reminds us:
Institutional responsibility has routinely been reduced to individual discretion in our country…..The ‘heritage’ manhole covers of Chandigarh sell for lakhs abroad, further underlining a cruel irony. And we feel better by putting that banana peel in the nearest garbage bin. Let someone else deal with the serious shit.
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Image courtesy: Spectralhues