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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
of India




Will The Clean India Campaign Really Cleanse India?

By Kandathil Sebastian

23 October, 2014


On 2nd October 2014, Indian prime minister has launched an ambitious 62,000 crore rupees project called Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) to create a 'clean India' by 2nd October 2019 - the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. The project wants to completely eliminate the unhealthy practice of people defecating in the open by providing every family with a toilet by 2019. In addition to construction of toilets, the project plans to create public awareness, change people’s attitudes, mindsets and behaviors, and deploy field staff to work on behavior change and to ensure accountability mechanisms.

Though independent India has earlier seen similar government initiatives such as Central Rural sanitation Program (launched in 1986) and Total Sanitation Campaign (later renamed as Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, launched in 1999), in terms of the resources allocated and the publicity given through media etc. the present campaign seems to be outshining the earlier ones. The campaign hopes that an estimated 600 million people who now defecate in the open will within the next five years shit in private flush toilets and thereby the country will have ‘shit free’ streets and open spaces. By making all the ‘dirty people’ who currently defecate in open as ‘clean people’ who defecate in toilets, most of the problems which have been attributed to open defecation and lack of toilets (such as poor people getting malnourished, stunted, sick, raped, and murdered) will also disappear!

The present essay will examine whether a fully clean India or even a cleaner India is a realistic possibility and if it is so, how easy or difficult it is, based on our experience of setting apart the ‘dirty’ and the ‘clean’ people. In order to deconstruct the idea of a ‘clean India’, a better understanding of what I describe as the ‘political economy of shit’ – an ideological construct by which the ruling regimes have effectively segregated, subjugated and controlled individuals is central. Shit in this article is a metaphor which represents not only human excreta but also all extreme forms of dirt created by man. The operational definition of ‘shit’ includes industrial waste too.

I would particularly emphasize two key points in the coming paragraphs of this essay:

1. The Clean – Dirty dichotomy has been successfully used and will perhaps continue to be used for many more years as an instrument of segregation and social control.

2. Caste and racial prejudices further prompt us to perceive ‘dirty’ tantamount to ‘black’ and such prejudices are deeply entrenched in our social psyche, thanks to several generations of indoctrination and orientation by social institutions such as religion and family.


Modern civilization is built on the strength of its instruments of social control which ensured order and peace. Successful civilizations effectively socialized the new generation into its values and ethos. Using means of communication, persuasion and coercion, its rebels are silenced and its dissenting ideas are re-directed. The ruling regimes of all successful civilizations have also used a paradigm of ‘clean-dirty’ dichotomy to subjugate and control their citizens. The dirty habits and lifestyles of the poor were looked down as anti-civilizational and regressive. All categories of rulers needed their own ‘savages’ to be ‘civilized’.

Many thinkers conjectured cleanliness as an essential prerequisite for societal survival. In 1929 Sigmund Freud in his influential work titled ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ professed that ‘cleanliness’, ‘order’ and ‘beauty’ are the three essential requirements of a civilization. Though there were many discourses on what constitutes beauty, there was a general agreement that clean and fair characteristics would make something beautiful. Accordingly, our mental construct of beauty was mostly based on color - what is white (not black) was promoted as clean and what is black (not white) was promoted as dirty.

Beauty manifested as white constituted the supreme ingredient of civilizations including the ancient Indian civilization which maintained its order through application of Varnashrama Dharma principles in their social life. Rule makers of ancient India asserted that people who shit all around as well as people who deal with shit, namely the lower caste Bhangis are dirty. There was strict segregation between those who deal with polluting shit and those who deal with purifying religious rituals. Over the years, those who did pure jobs ruled those who did impure jobs. Seeing someone who deal with the shit and even falling his shadow on pure class was considered to be polluting.

It was not only in ancient India, but also in the entire ancient world there was a huge concern over people who shit all around. In Dominique Laporte’s recent intellectually provocative treatise titled ‘History of Shit’, he mentions about a royal edict of 1539 in the city of Paris which declared: “Hold on to your shit…Dispose of it only in the dark night. Remove your pigs from sight beyond the city’s walls, or I will cease your person and your goods, engulf your home in my capacious purse, and lock your body in my jail”. Laporte then goes on to argue that the history of modernity is a victory of cleanliness over human shit. To him the management of human shit is crucial to our identities as modern individuals—including the organization of the city, the rise of the nation-state, and even the development of capitalism. Though Laporte applied his thesis of ‘the history of shit’ mainly in the realm of language, I will extrapolate that into the history of social life in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial worlds to deconstruct the clean-dirty dichotomy.


Louis Dumont, the eminent anthropologist in his seminal thesis titled ‘Homo Hierarchicus-The Caste System and its Implications’ vividly explains how the ancient Indian civilization organized itself through a hierarchical order based on the clean-dirty dichotomy. To him caste system in India was a system of ideas and values based on a single principle, which is the opposition of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’. This antagonism underlies a hierarchy in which the pure was superior and the impure was inferior. It also called for essential separation of the pure and the impure for maintaining social order. Indian caste system provided every individual with a fixed social environment with a permanent body of associations which controlled almost all behaviors and contacts. It ensured racial purity through endogamy and prevented any hybridization of clean and unclean castes.

By making individuals believe that it is their Karma of the past life which was responsible for their present occupation and by keeping them in the perpetual hope of a better life in the next birth, the caste based Indian society prevented any kind of revolt from the lower castes and it enjoyed peace and order for several centuries. Caste System made meticulous rules and provisions for all essential social functions ranging from education to scavenging. The lowest castes were dealing with dirtiest jobs like scavenging. Across India, lower caste Bhangis worked as “scavengers” to clear off human shit and carcasses; they collected human shit on a daily basis, and carried it away in cane baskets for disposal. They cleaned not only toilets in homes but also public sewers and shit tanks. In the precolonial India, the ideology of greed sparsely existed and therefore both the lower and upper castes were content with whatever wealth they had with them. Making effective use of religion to dispose off and process its shit, the ancient Indian civilization ensured social control and it survived many disruptions of war, famines and epidemics.


In 15th century, European colonial expansion brought in a new economic model in which the resources and labor power have been exploited for massive accumulation and expansion. Colonialism also perceived that racial, cultural, social, and economic differences between the natives and colonizers are abnormalities and problems to be rectified. Europeans who entered the Americas, Asia and African continents during this period viewed themselves as natural owners of the land and resources of the natives, because these resources weren't being used as they believed they ought to be. A paradigm of greed based development came into existence and it created a new kind of shit which was mostly ‘industrial waste’. The colonies turned out to be not only the manufacturing bases for products to be finally used in the developed West, but also became the dumping ground for colonial industrial waste too. The colonial industrialists disposed off its waste in areas were the marginalized people stayed, far away from the military cantonments and the settlements of Europeans.

They also viewed themselves as entitled to enslave and exploit the people they encountered because the latter were "savages" and "uncivilized". During the colonial era, there was a huge concern about the poor people who were shitting all around in the invaded territories. The bureaucratic annals of colonialism are filled with reports on the unsanitary conditions and unhygienic practices of native lives. Dirtiness and open defecation indicated primitiveness and savagery of natives and reaffirmed the white body's privileged position and claim of moral and racial superiority. An 1882 British report on "Indian Habits" observed that, "The people of India must be made clean by compulsion until they arrive at that degree of moral education when dirt shall become hateful to them, and then they will keep themselves clean for their own sake."

As early as in 1803, Lord Wellesley, the British governor general of India noted the phenomenon of dirty "Indians defecating everywhere” in an important report. The British authorities continuously expressed concern about the “dirty habits” of Indians which even posed “threat” to the wellbeing of Europeans. In 1863, the Royal Army sanitary Commission expressed its concern over the “filthy conditions of towns” and wrote: “On account of peculiar habits of people which in most respects are dirty in the extreme, amendment in the conversancy of a great portion of native towns is most hopeless.” Subsequently, the Royal Army sanitary Commission recommended creation of Town Improvement Committees charged with the responsibility of sanitation. In 1869, the sanitary commissioner of India again wrote: “It is a good thing to secure the cleanliness of the immediate environment of the troops, but they will never be safe as long as the native population and its towns and villages are left uncleansed to act as reservoirs of dirt and disease”. Subsequently, the Town Improvement Committees appointed scavengers from the lower castes to clean the dirt and shit created by the upper castes and the colonial masters. Blaming the defecating and dirty natives was handy for those who wanted to subjugate them. The sanitary crusade of the nineteenth century is indeed central to the violent project of ‘empire’ in Asia and Africa and the logic of Indians shitting all around was instrumental for effective British control over Indians. Western medicine, with its emphasis on personal hygiene, provided the necessary ammunition for this control.

However, public health interventions in India during the colonial period were based on its usefulness for the colonial enterprise. An example is the plague outbreak in Mumbai in 1896. Within a few days of Plague’s arrival from Hong Kong in India, quarantines had been imposed against Indian vessels at Suez and at many ports of Europe. This has badly affected the trade interests of the British East India Company. The panic and aggressive sanitation improvements that followed in Mumbai are brilliantly captured by Mark Harrison in his celebrated book ‘Public Health in British India’. Many buildings where the unclean people stayed have been destroyed. The scope of using medicine was limited - mostly as an instrument of social control and as a rationale for segregation between clean Britons and dirty natives by viewing Indians as part of a huge sanitary problem.

The stereotype of the inferiority of blackness was emphasized by Victorian literature, cinema and even soap advertisements (such as that of Pears). Stassa Edwards in a recent article titled ‘From Miasma to Ebola: The History of Racist Moral Panic Over Disease’ argued that “race was always linked to dirtiness and ignorance: blacks could become clean and white if they just bathed; they barely know how to clean themselves; they need a white man to teach them cleanliness, civilization, culture, etc.”. Thus an essential step toward lightening The White Man's Burden was through teaching the virtues of cleanliness to the natives. Most Indians subscribed the notion of superiority of white color over dirty black and continued to aspire becoming farer by using cosmetics, soaps etc. The inferiority of blackness of skin propagated imperceptibly became a handy tool for Europeans to rule the natives.


The independent India inherited ideas of social control from both the varnashrama dharma theories and from the British colonial idea of the ‘dirty others’. Though in 1955 India legally abolished ‘untouchability’ by passing the Untouchability Offences Act (which stated that “whoever compels any person on the ground of untouchability to do any scavenging or sweeping or to remove any Caracas or to flay any animal” is an offence), its depressed classes continued to live as ‘dirty others’. Despite a number of other subsequent acts (such as Manual Scavengers Act of 1993 and of 2013, which prohibited manual scavenging in all forms), the ‘dirty others’ lived as they were always used to be. The lower caste Bhangis continued to do their dirtiest job of manually cleaning and carrying the shit of their upper caste clean counterparts in their head. According to the Census of India 2011, there are currently 7, 94,390 dry latrines in India where the human excreta is cleaned manually by the lower caste Bhangis.

In September 1994, when there was a Plague outbreak in Surat, almost the similar kind of panic and responses as seen during the colonial times were reported. A high level committee set up by the government of India under the chairmanship of Prof. Ramalingaswamy could not find out the origin of plague though there was widespread speculation about poor migrants settled and lived in the city in dirty conditions caused the Surat epidemic. In 1986, when HIV/AIDS was reported in India, most of the HIV/AIDS prevention and management work that followed was focused on the marginalized groups such as sex workers, sexual minorities and drug users who are believed to be ‘dirty’ by the mainstream society.

The superiority of fair colored upper castes was continued to be re-emphasized in popular imagination through media, popular movies etc. and it manifested in the polity and the bureaucracy through disproportionate representation of farer and cleaner people. Jokes about dirty blacks (Kalus in Hindi, Karampus in Malayalam etc.) were most enjoyed in party circuits. Indian companies marketed and hugely profited from a wide range of whitening products such as Fair and Lovely creams to make the ‘dirty others’ clean. Continuing attacks on lower castes in India’s hinterland and the recently reported increasing attacks on Blacks in Indian cities emanate from racial prejudices and the authorities are yet to demonstrate their sincerity and seriousness in dealing with such cases as racial hate crimes.

The consumerist culture, which got matured across the liberalized India in the 1990s has led to the accumulation of huge industrial waste in the outskirts of cities and small towns. This shit was disposed off in areas where the marginalized people stayed, like in the colonial times. The technological imagination of the Indian middle class scientists hardly included any improvements in the way human shit was collected, processed and disposed as it was always done by those communities who stayed in the margins. Therefore the Bhangis continued to use crude instruments such as broom, scrap metals and bamboo baskets as their only tools to do their work while the society continued to produce the best of gadgets, equipment and tools to make the life of the middle class more luxurious and enjoyable. It still continues to dump its waste on those who are marginalized.

The current priority agenda of the Indian government seems to be facilitating investment of international capital in India and allowing global manufacturers to use India as a manufacturing base of their products by taking the advantage of cheap but skilled local labor. Projecting a clean image could be a strategy to attract not only foreign investors but also potential foreign buyers, especially buyers of food products and medicines. However, the augmented production processes will unfortunately lead to generation of waste mountains in areas where the ‘dirty others’ live. Shit and ‘dirty others’ will continue to exist as a never ending dichotomy of human life.


If I argue that the ‘dirty others’ remained silent as passive sufferers throughout the history I will be belittling the constructive roles played by some members of the intelligentsia of the middle class to liberate the oppressed communities. The paradigm of ‘dirty others’ held by the ruling elites were challenged by political parties, social movements, NGOs and organic intellectuals from the oppressed communities themselves, though each of them had their own inherent limitations. The left parties in India practiced a class based mobilization and they were unable to support a caste based mobilization of the depressed classes. Centrist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi tried to help them, but his non aggressive and patronizing positions did not lead to any decisive change in the widely held paradigms and systems of clean-dirty dichotomy. We are yet to see a clear and firm stand of the right wing parties on eliminating purity and pollution based systems.

Organic intellectuals like Ambedkar tried to make a difference, succeeded to a great extent, and many intellectuals from oppressed classes are continuing Ambedkar’s great work. Efforts by Missionaries mostly ended up in evangelizing ‘the dirty others’, and their works could not impart any substantive changes in their material life. Works by some International NGOs benefitted depressed classes through their detailed research and international advocacy. Indian NGOs like Sulabh international also effected some visible changes through technological and infrastructural inputs, though they too could not radically alter societal values and attitudes which had kept the oppressed communities in perpetual dirt for centuries. In recent years the country has witnessed a few sporadic media campaigns like ‘Black is beautiful’ anchored by enlightened individuals and popular actors to change people’s attitudes and racial mindsets, but with limited impact.


From the above discussion, it is clear that the cleanliness challenge of India is not just a sanitation challenge which could be addressed through techno-centric solutions such as constructing toilets, deploying staff, ensuring monitoring mechanisms and awareness generation through pamphlets and films. Such measures are not going to eliminate ‘the dirty others’ from our midst. The ‘dirty others’ are deeply ingrained in our own values, belief systems, attitudes and the way we conduct ourselves in private and public spaces. It has also inherent benefits to many of us who are part of the ruling elites and we are not going to give up them easily.

Unless we make fundamental changes in the way we approach our life and conduct social interactions, no substantive cleansing is going to happen in India, at least in the next five years. The way out could be we all becoming part of the ‘dirty others’ or the ‘dirty others’ becoming part of us so that we all will take responsibility of processing our shit together. Before producing something, we all should also be asking a key question - ‘Is it necessary?’ Unless today’s ‘greed’ based organization of our economy give way to ‘need’ based production and consumption, a clean India or Swacch Bharat will remain only as an utopia!

(Kandathil Sebastian is a Public Health Researcher, International Development Consultant and the Author of the novel Dolmens in the Blue Mountain)



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