We are at a juncture where it is possible to think of a ‘clean India’ without looking at the issue of urban sewage workers who clean the society’s filth.
It’s that day of the year when you are supposed to feel like a giant ‘citizen broom and dustpan’, warring against lack of cleanliness. How else can you feel on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday? And as the current dispensation’s flagship project, the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’, is at pains to tell us, sanitation and hygiene in every home was Gandhiji’s dream. The snazzy image of Gandhi’s spectacles-turned-logo of the campaign is a timely reminder of that message.
It’s a smart logo, no doubt. The spectacles are a fine way of attributing the brand value of the person who wore them, to those who seek the stamp of his morality. The logo is also in keeping with Gandhi’s belief in truth – it only wants to harp on the letter, not the spirit of his message.
The fact is that the spectacles sans face, with the bridge shown in the colours of the tricolour, is meant to reflect a contained narrative – a ‘surgical’ narrative, if you will. The idea is not to mix up categories such as cleanliness and ahimsa, no offence, Gandhiji. Inorganic campaigns don’t need to be fine-tuned to that extent. That is why a Rajasthan state employee Ashok Jain and his associates can beat a man to death for objecting to their ‘clean’ act of photographing women defecating outdoors. Their logic: In order to uphold the dignity of womanhood, it is important to shame them with all the power of the state. It is their call of duty.
In the current scheme of cleanliness, addressing caste-based hierarchies does not seem to be an important aspect of the narrative. For Gandhi, the idea of cleaning the outside world was not possible without self-introspection to clean the heart and mind of entrenched notions of purity and pollution. But we are at a juncture where it is possible to think of a ‘clean India’ without looking at the issue of urban sewage workers who lose their lives wading into toxic sewers to clean society’s filth or, as somebody once said, ‘to clear the clogged drains of civilisation’.
It is convenient to point out that they need jobs – in fact, during a recent television debate on a Hindi news channel, a worker said they would be willing to clean five extra sewers if the contractor was kind enough to get them some hot tea when they came out of the sewer.
Yes, they need jobs. But should this statement become a rationale for eternalising the job? Why isn’t a nation that is surging ahead able to conceive a technological, design-efficient solution that is not inhuman and caste determined – and made in India? How can the issue of manual scavenging and urban sewage workers not be central to the idea of an ambitious campaign for a clean India?
The fact is, a call for a grand cleanliness project enjoined as a national duty can steer clear of understanding the issue in the context of poverty and disparity, the meaning of citizenship for those at the margins, and the question of human dignity. It can steer clear of ground realities.
Long before the idea of cleanliness struck up a friendship with flat HD screens, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in one of his fortnightly letters to chief ministers, in 1960, discussed the kind of brooms that municipal corporations should have. In doing so, he placed the human at the centre of his thought, as Gandhi always insisted, indicating that he was writing about a “subject which, perhaps, will seem to you very trivial and even unimportant. Here we are dealing with great issues, planning mighty projects and all that. But still what I am writing to you seems to me to have a basic importance.”
Nehru drew attention to the Indian broom which could “only be used if one bends down to it or even sits when using it. For most household purposes, this might not matter much, although it is troublesome even there. A broom or a brush with a long handle, which can be used while a person is standing, is far more effective from the point of work and far less tiring to the person using it.”
Pointing out that as far as he knew, the long handle brooms and brushes were in use across the world, Nehru asked the crucial question: “Why then do we carry on with a primitive, out of date, method which is inefficient and psychologically all wrong? Bending down in this way to sweep is physically more tiring and, I suppose, encourages a certain subservience in mind.”
His suggestion was that municipalities and corporations “must be induced to bring this small, but far-reaching, reform.”
The suggestion was not based simply on ergonomics or maximising efficiency by reducing physical fatigue; it equally recognised the psychological fatigue caused by a long-standing socially oppressive practice.
To connect cleanliness with the idea of freedom from violence or oppression, as Gandhi did, is not an airy-fairy idea. It does, however, demand from us that we look ground up while thinking of solutions. Ground-up, people are the most visible element, and their predicaments are there for all to see. This is what Gandhi’s spectacles as logo seem to be communicating – that is, if we are in a frame of mind to see.