Swachhta Abhiyan-For whom and by whom?

October 2, 2014

By T.Prathamesh

The Prime minister of India has shown a remarkable penchant for media management. The teachers day on September 5th has been a day traditionally associated with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Circa 2014, the only association that many might have developed with september 5th was Narendra Modi. Similarly every news report which covered the mars mission also carried a photograph of Narendra Modi. At a very subliminal level, it seems to convey that impression that Narendra Modi had something to do with the Mars mission. Such image building exercises by banking on associations has been the hallmark of this prime minister. These exercises seem to atleast serve two purposes (1) Bring the prime minister in constant public limelight by creating an impression of a man of constant action (2) It seems to replace and recreate many associations which are aimed at long term popularity.

The latest such association building exercise has been the cleanliness drive or swacha bharath abhiyaan on Gandhi Jayanti- October 2nd. Gandhi Jayanti for many middle class indians represented a sleepy holiday which atmost involved watching television news items about dignitaries visiting Raj Ghat and an occasional film on nationalist theme on television. This year, Gandhi has largely dissappeared from public consciousness and what we really hear of or see is Mr. Modi. The campaign seems to largely thrive on parliamentarians and others celebrities pretending to clean the streets. It was obvious that very few of them ever wielded a broom before or would do so in near future. It also remains very obvious that the streets they swept were far in need of any actual sweeping.

It also involved many oath taking exercises in which central government employees were forced to take oaths to keep the surroundings clean. The oath primarily revolved around middle class notions about public hygiene such as avoiding littering and not letting others litter. Such performative exercises seem to completely avoid any structural understanding behind questions about public hygiene or the lack of it. Neither does it reflect even an iota of concern over the skewed nature of public hygiene or about the vast number of people who are engaged in sanitation as an occupation.

Vast number of people who could be labelled as sanitation workers are engaged in maintaining public hygiene either as municipal workers, contract employees in corporations or as domestic workers. This vast section is not only vastly underpaid and lacks basic amenities, caste system ensures that this occupation is largely inherited without even a superficial degree of choice involved. Most of the sanitation workers belong to dalit castes such as valmikis, mehtars or mangarodis. The past few decades also saw a growing contractualisation of labour saw many of them losing their status as permanent workers in municipalities and municipal corporations and being reduced to contract employees without any job security.

They lack basic amenities such as gloves or any protective gear to help them in their task. Some of them are also consigned to work in extremely dangerous unhealthy environments such as cleaning manholes, without adequate protection. In the last few years in the state of karnataka alone, around 33 sewage workers employed on a contract basis have lost their lives on duty. In large parts of rural India, manual scavenging still persists along with feudal modes of exploitation of the workers and caste based exclusion.

The question of actual shared public responsibility in maintaining public hygiene across class, caste and genders get completely avoided when the actual task ahead is trivialized and converted into avenues for publicity seeking or superficial ‘feel good’ efforts of elites and middle classes. Gandhi for all his flaws at least tried to link the question with attitudes generated in a caste society, where the upper castes found it below their dignity to engage in ‘certain’ tasks. His campaign which revolved around upper castes cleaning their own toilets did not fundamentally change much in terms of caste relations either in his time or later. Modi’s campaign is bereft of even the tiniest bits of intent or any understanding of structural issues that was visible in Gandhi’s campaign. One could only be tempted to apply Marx’s most quoted statement from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to this context- “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

No Comments »

Leave a comment