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How Modi Sanitises Untouchability !

By Subhash Gatade

16 October, 2013

Not very many people would have read about a study by an American scholar Stephanie Tam of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University, about the status of sewerage system in Ahmedabad. Titled "Coprology and Caste : : The Status of Sewerage in Ahmedabad, India”, it brings home a stark point that Ahmedabad may be one of the earliest pioneers of sewerage system in the 19th century but it has not only failed to solve manual scavenging; rather manual scavenging has been given a new form. (http://counterview.org/2013/09/18/american-scholar-narrates-how-ahmedabads-sweeper-caste-was-morphed-into-sewer-caste-over-the-decades/)

In fact the absence of change in the lifeworlds of the people engaged in scavenging can be had by comparing two reports. The report brought out by Scavenger's Living Conditions Enquiry Committee (1955) reveals that Bhangis in the region had no latrines, and lived next to dumping grounds and open drains whereas a 2006 state-wide study, tells us that 45.4 per cent of Bhangis still had no toilets and no bathrooms, their unsanitary living conditions being used to justify their polluted status.

It is important to look into details of the matter as the chief minister of the state is engaged in telling people outside the state that they have 'solved' the problem successfully.

Look at the “A Road Map for Zero Waste Ahmedabad City – A Visionary Document to Guide Ahmedabad towards Becoming a Resource Efficient and Zero Waste City by 2031”, which was recently released as an official document. Analysing it Jitendra Rathod ( Senior activist with Janvikas, Ahmedabad) tells us how it provides “visionary” insights into how to make Ahmedabad a zero waste city in less than two decades but surprisingly, the document is silent on the plight of the manual scavengers: The document has been financed and commissioned jointly by the AMC and the United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD). The document addresses several concerns of waste and waste management – except the safety and better health of the sweepers!

The title page of the document is sufficient to prove the casteist mindset of the AMC administration. The document claims to be “visionary”, but the sweepers will continue to collect the garbage, dust, filth of the city by unclean way.

The so-called visionary document mentions that almost 1,10,667 metric tonnes (MT) of solid waste is generated in the city on a monthly basis. Out of this, most of it, 1,08,454 MT, is collected manually by sweepers. The document itself accepts that these wastes are collected by sweepers in an unclean way to keep the city neat, clean and a better place to live in.


Undoubtedly, Narendra Modi, would not have imagined that his exhortation that 'toilets first, temples later' at a Delhi conclave would not only generate a debate within the saffron fraternity but would also bring back focus on the pathetic situation of sanitation in his home state itself. And the ensuing discussion would also transcend to his controversial ideas about untouchability - the social-religious practice based on the logic of purity and pollution which has marginalised, terrorised and relegated a section of Indian society to a life marked by humiliation and indignity.

Coming to the figures about sanitation in the state. If the 2001 census had shown rural sanitation coverage meaning three basic facilities — drinking water, electricity and sanitation - merely at a low 21%, the 2012-13 India Rural Development Report tells us that it has reached merely 25 % of the state's population. The situation is not very encouraging in urban areas as well.

In fact, a recent survey by 'Manav Garima', a community-based organization, fighting for the rights of the scavenging community, Valmikis, in Ahmedabad, has found that there are 126 spots where manual scavenging is practiced under the aegis of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) itself. The survey suggests, 188 dry latrines still continue to operate in the city. (http://www.truthofgujarat.com/though-prohibited-law-manual-scavenging-manual-removal-excreta-still-prevalent-ahmedabad/)

If one goes outside Ahmedabad situation seems worse. Issues related with manual scavenging in smaller towns of Gujarat were recently highlighted in a survey carried out by Navsarjan Trust which shows that despite the law against manual scavenging, which was made more stringent by Indian Parliament recently, Gujarat’s smaller towns are some of the worst victims of the despicable age-old practice of manually removing excreta, imposed upon the valimiki community for generations. Dholka town, situated around 50 kilometres from Ahmedabad, is a classic example where despite repeated reminders by NGOs fighting against manual scavenging, the state officialdom has failed come out its slumber, the practice continues till date. The whole thing came to light when a petition was filed by Navsarjan Trust, before the National Human Rights Commission (HHRC) in January 2013.

Interestingly, there is a great hiatus between what the government admits and the actual situation on the ground.When a petition was filed by the same organisation with the National Human Rights Commission in this regard in the year 2010, the Gujarat government had no qualms in replying that there were no manual scavengers in the whole state and it is serious in effective implementation of the 1993 act (Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993,) which stipulates punishment to those employing manual scavengers or those who order construction of dry (non-flush) latrines.

Whether this silence vis-a-vis manual scavenging is because of Modi feels that it is a 'spiritual experience' need to be looked into. As is evident, his retrogade thinking which rather sanitises the humiliation of a community has not received the attention it deserved.


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. Thanks to a veteran journalist, Rajiv Shah, without whose incisive report, the world would not have known l'affaire 'Karmyog'. (http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/entry/modi-s-spiritual-potion-to-woo-karmayogis) Pages 48-49 of the said book give an inkling of Modi's ideas. He writes :

"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."

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.”

One was reminded of these ideas of Modi, when news came in sometime back that the budget for this financial year passed by the Gujarat state assembly, had allocated a sum of Rs 22.5 lakhs for giving training in Karmkand (rituals) to Safai Kamdars themselves. The idea was to train them in scriptures so that they could perform pujas (organise worships). It is clear that the 'new scheme' as it was presented before the people was just a revised version of its earlier scheme wherein members of the scheduled communities were given training to become 'Gurubrahmins' so that they could also perform pujas. It could be asked if Modi values safai karmacharis so highly, why is it that he has begun outsourcing all the menial jobs for a very low pay, between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,500 per month per worker. Why they are not being employed on a permanent basis? (http://kafila.org/2013/03/04/modis-social-engineering/)

With custodians of the state themselves having such regressive understanding it is not difficult to understand why untouchability is widely prevalent in Gujarat. Study by Navsarjan, a voluntary organisation, of 1,589 villages (2010) tells us that of these 98 per cent of the villages still practise untouchability. While the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, mandates a special court and a special public prosecutor to deal with atrocity cases, but the state government says that it does not have any money for this.

And the latest 'proof' which reflects the mindset of the Gujarat government and its 'able administrator' could be had from a state sponsored report 'Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities : A Study of Gujarat' (May 2013) wherein it calls caste discrimination a matter of "perceptions". (http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/entry/untouchability-and-modi-s-babus). Period.

Click on the image for a larger display

Subhash Gatade is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Aadmi (2010) Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India,(2011) and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India(2011). He is also the Convener of New Socialist Initiative (NSI) Email : subhash.gatade@gmail.com


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