Debate: There Can be no Clean Cities Without Breaking the Caste Stigma

An approach that focuses only on toilets as technology and preaches ‘cleaning’ as a voluntary service, ignoring the fact that only a particular caste is made to work in sanitation, reinforces the caste system.

A response to Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s recent article in The Wire ‘Let’s Talk about Clean India’s Unspeakable Secret‘, published on May 24.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey have both been writing regularly on the waste/garbage seen in public places in India. To put it differently, they are critics of India’s unclean public spaces and the disposal of waste. They have been advocating change. They adopt the Gandhian method that focuses on changing the behaviour of caste Hindus who expect others to clean. In other words, they do not find any problem with the Gandhian method.

The method adopted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his signature campaign, Swachh Bharat, celebrates the same approach. This method has undergone no scrutiny at all. What aspect of change does the Gandhian approach preach? Asking safai karmacharis to also do cleaning as a service is nothing less than upholding the caste system through the backdoor.

Doron and Jeffrey’s article is a comment occasioned by the release of the ‘Swachh Survekshan’ rankings. Indore in Madhya Pradesh has been ranked first as the cleanest city for the second consecutive year.

In the beginning of the article itself, the authors argue that Indore is doing something right about cleanliness. They describe the methodology used by the municipal corporation in keeping the city clean. It uses close to 10,000 employees, and has deployed 1,000 ragpickers to segregate waste in the vehicles that collect waste daily from every household.

The authors argue that a clean city requires two ingredients for managing its households: the first is managing its waste, the second, its caste and prejudice.

According to them, Indore seems to have identified and addressed the first issue but it’s not clear what the authors’ position is on the second one, and whether Indore has succeeded in addressing it. This is the ‘unspeakable secret’ all along the article.

The article discusses the methods employed by Indore’s administrators in making the city clean but doesn’t explain the status of sweepers in the very same town. Instead, it make references to Gujarat, and to a book, Untouchable, written by Hazari nearly 70 years ago. The problem is that with such random references, which do not focus on Indore, the authors end up making at best a vague argument about the relationship between caste, sanitation and cleanliness.

There is, in fact, a strong relationship between waste, caste and labour but the authors fail to build this argument in the context of Indore. Most importantly, if Indore’s goal – or Swachh Bharat’s aim – of achieving a clean city can be achieved without breaking the caste stigma, then there is surely a problem with the approach itself. This the authors fail to recognise.

Most importantly, they argue, “For them [safai karamcharis] to do the systematic work required of modern towns and cities, they need to be rewarded, trained and valued.” What is the reward the authors are talking about? Are they saying that they are not being paid enough for their work? Or that they aren’t trained for the work? Who should value whom? Basically, the authors don’t problematise the present functioning of the system in the context of waste and safai karamcharis. Rather, as a solution, they argue that change of behaviour is needed. That we should move away from seeing safai karamcharis as volunteers doing some sort of social work, to recognising that it is work they are doing and that we should treat them and their work equally.

In my view, there is hardly any difference between the authors’ argument that safai karamcharis be rewarded and Narendra Modi arguing that this work is a ‘spiritual experience’ for them for which they must have been rewarded. Most importantly, though they agree that there is a particular caste engaged in cleaning, they don’t problematise that fact. Rather, respect, dignity, training and fair reward for steady work form the essence of their argument. In other words, the article doesn’t offer safai karamcharis a fundamental change.

The safai karamcharis do not argue for respect and dignity in isolation, but that they need to be released from the chains of scavenging. For this, neither the authors, nor Modi nor Gandhi have any argument to make. As I repeatedly argue, the Gandhian method can never remove bhangis/arundhathiyars from the shackles that will continue to entangle them.

A woman sweeps a road as part of cleanliness programmes being run in Indore in Madhya Pradesh, which has been ranked first as the cleanest Indian city for the second consecutive year. Credit: PTI/Vijay Verma

In this context, it is instructive to take a look at the arguments Doron and Jeffrey have made in the past.

In ‘Waste and the City’, a short article by the authors in the edited volume, The City and South Asia (2014), they both talk about the statistics of waste produced in India, comparing it with North America and Europe. While discussing the waste that is produced and disposed, they talk about the dangers of living next to garbage. They suggest ways to reduce waste in urban India and demand mechanised and institutionalised collection methods.

Caste never figures in this analysis, nor in their Asian Currents article of December 2014, titled “Modi’s new broom aims to sweep India clean“. In this article, they examine whether the BJP can make the Swachh Bharath campaign more than a picnic for advertising agencies. And critique whether the campaign will create widespread waste management that is systematic, effective and sustainable. Largely, they were arguing in favour of a systematic method to deal with waste removal.

In the November 2014 ISAS Special Report, ‘Clean India!’ Miles to Go Before We Sweep?‘, Robin Jeffrey responds to the Swachh Bharat campaign introduced by Modi. As Indian cities expand, they face two issues: one, unheard of population density and the other is caste. The article discusses the amount of garbage produced that goes unprocessed. Jeffrey argues that a lot of it rots and spreads diseases, and henceforth disposal should be adopted and the government should follow other countries in this regard. He argues that the present problems faced by Indian cities are the same faced in 19th century Europe, North America and Australia. Citizens realised the relation between the city’s filth and diseases and local authorities took the task of providing clean water, sewage and drainage to all their residents.

The article notes that the other problem in India is caste, where a large number of Dalits work as safai karamcharis. For the author, the problem emerges from caste society’s belief that the collection of waste is someone else’s job. That is why people leave their environs dirty. “To change such deep feelings will require persistence and example,” Jeffrey writes, adding: “Having a Prime Minister from a lower caste, who is not a dvijya or twice-born, who has a remarkably strong personal mandate and who makes Clean India a signature campaign, is an important start”. Sadly it is the same prime minister, Narendra Modi, who wrote in his now withdrawn 2007 book Karmayog, that scavenging was an “experience in spirituality” for the Valmikis’.

Even in their latest article, it is unclear what Doron and Jeffrey aim for at when speaking about caste in waste. The only thing they argue in the present and in the past, is for those who think of cleaning waste as someone else’s job to change their mindset. They don’t dismantle the root of such thinking – caste – but go with Gandhi’s ideology that everyone should be involved in cleaning waste. An approach that preaches ‘cleaning’ as a voluntary service and simultaneously ignores the fact that only a particular caste is made to work in sanitation is an approach that reinforces the caste system. This is precisely the reason why the campaign ambassadors and celebrities in the photo ops for Swachh Bharat are from a caste where cleaning is not a traditional occupation.

The authors press for clean places through institutionalised mechanisms. Their demand for clean public spaces is driven by the need to combat the spread of diseases. The Western approach to sanitation was a response to the spread of contagious diseases and gave equal importance to personal hygiene and the cleanliness of public spaces. This thematic shift has led to a focus only on toilets as technology, forgetting that sanitation in India is not only a taboo but also a stigma. It is important that we design our own sanitation policy with lessons from the West but we need not copy the same methodology that they adopted. Let us not forget that caste is an unequal system and we need to derive a practice that removes safai karamcharis from the chain of this particular work. For this, we have to start from the beginning – and study how we understand waste in the first place.

Ravichandran Bathran is a founding member of Dalit Camera, and was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.

An earlier version of this article was first published on Round Table India.


Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s written separate responses to Ravichandran Bathran’s critique are appended below.

Assa Doron writes:

Ravichandran Bathran is correct to note that we focus on behavioural change, but such change, we believe, must be understood within a wider waste economy. We agree that a Gandhian approach of frugality and self-sufficiency is a romantic lens, thinly dressed in the garb of Gandhigiri (à la Lage Raho, Munna Bhai) – a celebration of individual responsibility cast as the ultimate agent of change. Such Gandhian inspired views are clearly endorsed by the PM, who seeks to galvanise the population at home and the diaspora under the auspices of Gandhi, Swachh Bharat and the promise of vikas (development). But Gandhi’s spectacles have a limited vision for the densely populated, consumer-driven society of 21st century India, excreting an inordinate amount of toxic waste – from construction debris to human waste. Waste is, therefore, a symbol and a reality of this ever-changing landscape, yet cultural stigmas continue to stick to those who are charged with handling garbage and sanitation.

As we repeatedly point out in ‘Waste of a Nation‘, unless recognition and reward are given to those who handle waste – untouchables, poor Muslims, landless labourers – waste will continue to choke India. It is not a question of upholding caste structures or not. Caste is a social fact, anchored in institutions, social structures, and cultural attitudes. It infuses the system itself – from sanitation to waste collection – something we extensively document in our book, and which is central to recent studies on sanitation by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears’ Where India Goes and Mukul Sharma’s penetrating examination of Sulabh International and its Gandhian ideals.

We are all too aware that attitudes and behaviours are hard to change, so that those untouchables condemned to deal with waste before Independence, during Hazari’s time, are still experiencing multiple forms of prejudice and oppression. In rapidly urbanising India, waste is a product of a political, cultural and economic system in its most visceral sense. In a society that increasingly consumes growing quantities of throw-away products, everyone is implicated in the waste economy to differing degrees. Under such conditions, oppressed workers will find it difficult to escape from the exploitation, prejudice and alienation they face on daily basis; trapped in a double bind of ritual pollution and grave occupational hazards. Any spiritual gloss on the underclass conceals this moral degradation and grim reality, rather than scrutinising it.

There is no clean sweep when it comes to cultural prejudice regarding caste. Discrimination works in multiple ways, from spatial segregation, cultural schemas, to the denial of jobs, social services, and basic sanitation facilities. In practical terms, those at the bottom of the waste pyramid are struggling to avoid being crushed by the mounting volumes of detritus, and what is needed are just rewards, suitable technologies and recognition by the authorities and people of the value of their labour. Speaking about this “unspeakable secret” is aimed at effecting change and breaking the vicious circle of social discrimination and economic exploitation, validated by religious ideology.

Indore’s recent experiences with waste present an example of policies and techniques that a survey has deemed to be effective. The successes and pitfalls of Indore are worth examining to discover lessons about regulation, transparency and improvement in the conditions and opportunities of the people who deal with waste.


Robin Jeffrey writes:

There are a number of misunderstandings in Ravichandran Bathran’s interpretation of our recent piece in The Wire. To begin with, that piece was not an endorsement of Indore’s sanitation programmes, as Bathran infers, but rather a suggestion that Indore was worth inspection to see what in fact has happened there that might have lessons for elsewhere. That inspection is for people close to the action to conduct.

We welcome the chance to be part of a discussion of a conflict and a problem that have to be overcome to achieve the levels of public sanitation and health that India aspires to. Bathran’s comments provide an opportunity to try to clarify positions and definitions and to discuss policy that may effect desirable change. Achievement of a Clean India depends on erosion and elimination of prejudice, structures and practices based on caste. No sustained and genuinely Clean India is likely until then, and indeed, a genuinely Clean India will be only achieved in lock-step with the erosion and elimination of caste beliefs and practices. How are these goals to be achieved?

Gandhi’s legacy needs to be demystified and better understood. His position on cleanliness and waste, elaborated in “The Ideal Bhangi,” was patronising, unrealistic and intensely political, dictated by the need to keep Congress’s national base and major donors onside in the 1930s. B. R. Ambedkar blew apart “The Ideal Bhangi” in his withering response in 1937, entitled “The Vindication of Caste by Mahatma Gandhi.”

One of the cruel dilemmas of India’s predicament with waste management is this: how do you improve sanitation in cities and villages; provide essential human needs to people who do the work now, today; and – the most important aspect – ensure that they, and especially their children, can aspire realistically to different and better futures? Children of waste-workers should not be made to believe that their futures are decided, closed and confined to occupations dictated by birth.

The question is also one of class, because not everyone who currently works at the hands-on level of cleaning India is a Scheduled Caste. Poor Muslims, Scheduled Tribes and displaced, landless Hindus also work with waste. The word, “Dalit” is capable of encompassing a range of “the oppressed,” not simply people classified as Scheduled Castes, though the narrower definition is often what is meant.

To be sure, in Europe, North America and Australia, hands-on waste work is not particularly esteemed. Robin Nagle, the American anthropologist who worked as an ordinary labourer on New York garbage trucks, tells of the New York City co-worker who lived in a nice house but never told his neighbours what he did. He was able to provide “rich … social, educational and professional opportunities for his children” (Picking Up, p. 220). Part of the reason was that he belonged to a strong, class-based union and was decently paid. And he did not have to contend with questions about “what caste” he was. (It needs to be noted, however, that hands-on waste work in the US often has a large proportion of African-Americans).

What sorts of policies would move India in a direction that erodes the limitations on, and the prejudices against, people who work with waste? It’s 18 years since the Bhopal Conference, convened by the Madhya Pradesh government, and the Bhopal Declaration of 2002 – “Charting a New Course for Dalits in the 21st Century.”  The 21-point “action agenda” had two particularly do-able recommendations. One was that governments must buy some of their requirements from “socially disadvantaged businesses”; another was that there should be “compulsory, free and high-quality education for all Dalits.” One could envisage, as a first step, Dalit-run businesses growing up around the recycling industry if such incentives were rigorously applied. And high-quality education is fundamental – education that leads to the skills and knowledge necessary to gain employment in any field.

But these are steps that will only show results in the medium and long term. A short-term step is to ensure that the people who work with waste – and there are many categories of such people – are equipped with, and become the specialists in the 10-tonne trucks, the honey-suckers, the transport and electronic infrastructure that are essential in the struggle to keep cities clean. Skills in mechanics, electronics and transport are transferrable to other industries, and those sorts of skills can be imparted now.

What other practical, immediate policy options are imaginable? What are the pathways to two desirable and inseparable goals – eroding caste and making a Clean India. The following list of possibilities may provoke better ideas.


One, a national youth volunteer scheme – think of the NCC perhaps? – made up of idealistic graduates willing to serve for one or two years to help staff high-quality schools in the poorest neighbourhoods. Compulsory, high-quality education for Dalits was one of the recommendations of the Bhopal Declaration (Recommendation No. 9).

Two, widespread development and introduction of the appropriate, sophisticated equipment necessary for effective public sanitation.

Three, systematic, credentialed training programmes for waste workers in operating and maintaining the mechanical and electronic equipment necessary to keep urban places clean and minimise the dangerous and distasteful aspects of the work. Skills are transferrable to other industries.

Four, commitment by national and state governments to source a proportion of their needs from recycling industries run by Dalits, thus encouraging recycling and the growth of Dalit skills and wealth (Bhopal Declaration, Recommendation No. 15).

Five, since the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have their own television channels, empower and finance the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to run television channels with a brief to giving visibility to issues related to SCs/STs.

There are no doubt better ideas about making a beginning. What are they? And how are profound changes to begin?

Join The Discussion