Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The cheat sheet of history

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The Prime Minister is busy invoking Gandhi’s name and upgrading the Swacch Bharat campaign. But more than a century after Gandhi’s crusade deaths of sewer cleaners and manual scavengers have not abated.

Column in Business Standard, September 22, 2018

The prime minister’s 68th birthday was celebrated with hectic activity by himself and others. A prize-winning skydiver jumped 13,000 feet from a plane in Chicago, holding aloft a banner of warm greetings. In his constituency, Varanasi, which he visited, schoolchildren presented him a 101-kg. laddoo; the schoolroom, needless to say, was covered with Narendra Modi posters. This “Chacha Nehru” event — of appropriating a birthday as another Children’s Day — was topped by a story-telling session. Mr Modi’s contribution was a fable about Gandhi as a small boy.

Gandhi is very much on his mind. A day or so earlier in Delhi he swept into a school established by B R Ambedkar — with full panoply of black SUVs and security detail — and picked up a broom. Homilies on sanitation and cleanliness (amplified by video endorsements by celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) are Mr Modi’s latest advertorial that conflates his birthday party with the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary starting next month.

Except that the dimmest kid in class can tell you that Gandhi didn’t race around the country surrounded by SPG commandos and fawning chief ministers and district officials. He travelled in third-class compartments, lived among the poorest of the poor in their ghettoes, and cleaned his own latrine daily, insisting that his followers do the same.

Sweeping through the cheat sheet of history, the prime minister’s bogus genuflection at the altars of Gandhi and Ambedkar showed up for what it is — a shallow, stale exercise in shoring up support for elections that loom forbiddingly closer.

As the drumbeat grows louder, he’s running out of ideas. It wasn’t the most propitious moment for Mr Modi to descend into classrooms and ask children if they cleaned their nails and took daily baths. And loftily announce that “the contribution of ‘swachhgrahis’ (cleanliness workers) will be remembered with the same respect as a true inheritor of Bapu’s legacy”.

The impact of those words couldn’t have been more chilling a day later, when Twitter images and reports by a journalist showed an 11-year-old boy weeping over the corpse of his father, Anil, a sewer cleaner who was gassed to death when the worn-out rope lowering him into the sewer snapped. Some days earlier the family had lost an infant to pneumonia; now they had no money to pay for Anil’s last rites. It took more than 90 minutes to fish out his body.

The story shocked and angered the capital. Even as a public-spirited NGO and crowdfunding came to the family’s rescue, so did the recurrent reality of manual scavengers — many of them low-income daily wagers with no protection, safety standard or security. “That little boy used to stay near that open manhole in the sewer, guarding his dad’s clothes and shoes. For him, the sewer was his dad’s office. His words horrified me,” said the Good Samaritan who helped raise the money.

Despite a 2013 Supreme Court ban, manual scavenging has far from disappeared more than a century after Gandhi’s tireless fight to eradicate the blight. Moreover, the number of deaths is widely disputed. While a report by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis claims one manual scavenger died every five days in India in 2017, the activist Bezwada Wilson says “the government numbers are a fraction of the data we have on sewer deaths. Over 300 people were killed in 2017”. Another report claims six such deaths occurred in New Delhi alone last week.

The bleak irony is that the national capital is one of the richest places in the country. Despite the Aam Aadmi Party’s state government and the BJP at the Centre being at daggers drawn, the two dispensations occupy the same geography — the count and safe cleaning of every manhole is easily within their grasp. Neither wants to be seen to be presiding over a killer capital. Their leaders pay regular obeisance to Gandhi and Ambedkar and both swear allegiance to a clean city — even if Mr Modi picks up a token broom for effect, Arvind Kejriwal’s chief totem is the jharoo. So what’s the problem?

According to Mr Wilson, there’s simply no enforcement of the legal ban on scavenging. “There is a law in place but nobody will punish anyone here…There is no political will. Budget allocation shows sanitation workers are not priority at all.” Survival is tough for marginalised sewer workers because regulation is non-existent. Any person can call for a worker to clean their sewers, says Mr Wilson. “Neither can they refuse to work nor are they safe in those manholes.”

Meanwhile, government departments are gearing up to spend millions on a year-long publicity blitz from October 2. Mr Modi’s “Swacch Bharat” drive is to receive a full-throttle upgrade by stealing another page from history’s cheat sheet. The new Gandhian mantra is called “Swacchta hi sewa” — cleanliness is service.




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