Let's Talk About Clean India’s Unspeakable Secret

In India, caste and practices related to caste are inescapable in the waste-management conundrum.

There’s a wonderful book called Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay about England in bygone days when it was still heavily rural and agricultural labour was the life of thousands of people.

The recent release of the Swachh Survekshan rankings of India’s cleanest cities suggests someone should write a book called Ask the People Who Pick Up the Waste. (Bhasha Singh’s Unseen, published by Penguin in 2014, comes close).

For the second survey in a row, Indore in Madhya Pradesh has been declared India’s cleanest city. It’s easy to deride the survey and its methodology, but the fact that Indore topped the list twice suggests that Indore is doing something right. And when you look at the criteria that Indore is said to have satisfied, so many of them relate to the people who actually pick up the waste and to the hands-on practices essential for keeping towns and cities clean.

No amount of technology or deployment of infrastructure is as effective as motivated people who understand why they are doing what they’re doing.

The municipal corporation of Indore has close to 10,000 employees, and in its triumphant media briefing told reporters that it had also taken on a thousand “ragpickers” – presumably freelance waste collectors – to segregate dry waste. The mayor claimed that she held 400 citizen meetings and that 400,000 people had taken part in “oath of cleanliness” ceremonies. Jingles about cleanliness played from the daily waste-collection vehicles that covered every household.

The Indore story is convincing because it incorporates much of the knowledge common to people who have worked with waste for a long time. The Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 themselves provide plenty of sound guidance.

Two things, however, are usually missing from these recipes for cleaner towns and cities. Indore appears to have found one of those ingredients, though it’s unclear whether they’ve been prepared to tackle the other.

A woman sweeps a road as part of cleanliness programmes being run in Indore. Credit: PTI/Vijay Verma

A woman sweeps a road as part of cleanliness programmes being run in Indore. Credit: PTI/Vijay Verma

What’s widely known is that relentless daily collection of waste, sorted into usable categories as it is collected, makes for the most effective way to tackle household waste, whether of the poor or the better-off.

It’s also known that collection of waste in the past was irregular, whether provided by municipal employees or freelance waste-pickers. And it is well known that processing waste close to the source saves fuel, lessens pressure on landfills and engages householders and waste-collectors in a sense of shared enterprise.

Ideas of a shared enterprise aren’t easy to propagate. There’s a strong class-based dimension. “Green and clean” campaigns privilege more affluent neighbourhoods, where access and revenue collection are easier, the recycling value of the waste is higher and the residents have more political leverage. Poor neighbourhoods are often left to wallow in their detritus.

Many of the principles emphasised in the Solid Waste Management Rules originated from the work of activists and true-believers, both officials and private citizens. A retired Andhra Pradesh official, well-known in south India for his passion for waste management, drafted a step-by-step guide to improving urban waste management more than ten years ago, which some towns have taken as a template.

Relentless commitment is the key element in the formula to manage a town’s household waste. Indore seems to have found that element. The story told by Indore’s mayor and municipal commissioner emphasises constant supervision, praise, reward and punishment at all levels.

The problem with this formula, however, is: what happens when key people are no longer there? Often in such circumstances – when the leader of the corporation or the NGO goes – things fall apart.

That’s where the second element in the formula comes in – caste and prejudice. Caste is not limited to electoral cycles and vote banks; it is an everyday phenomenon with its most visceral form found in ideas of pollution and the treatment of tainted things. Such ideas and practices make waste control in India a greater challenge than elsewhere.

And for effective, long-term change it is essential to recognise the people who do most of the actual work – the low-status safai karmacharis and rag-pickers. In this business of waste, they are “the fellows who cut the hay.” For them to do the systematic work required of modern towns and cities, they need to be rewarded, trained and valued.

And though it is seldom said, it is assumed that most of these workers – perhaps even a majority – are Dalits. Nowhere was this more vividly illustrated than in the story coming out of Rajkot district in Gujarat on Sunday, May 20, of a Dalit man being beaten to death because he and his wife refused to collect factory waste after allegedly being told to do so.

Caste and practices related to caste are inescapable in the waste-management conundrum.

We can see such connections implicit in a billboard used for publicity early in the Swachh Bharat campaign. There’s a large black-and-white photo of a middle-class matron throwing rubbish of various kinds off the balcony of her flat. The public-relations firm that designed the billboard understood a widely shared sentiment. The woman does not want tainted things – plate scrapings, soiled paper tissues and so on – in her flat for a moment longer than necessary. Elsewhere in the world, such waste usually stays in a household bin until the weekly collection.

The woman expects someone else – someone born to the role? – to deal with her family’s detritus. Those people take on the pollution. They carry it on their persons. And if the people who deal with waste are not Dalits, they are often assumed to be. Caste and class-based assumptions are the core of such behaviour.

Nearly 70 years ago, Hazari, an untouchable man, wrote a book called Untouchable, where he described the role of his caste. They were the scavengers of rural India, forced into “sweeping roads, cleaning latrines, and salvaging dead animals”. Fast forward to the 21st century and not much has changed in attitudes to waste and towards the people charged with cleaning it up. Dalits sweep the streets and deal with sewers and sewage; they clean an estimated half a million dry latrines with bare hands every day. In extreme cases, they suffer public humiliation and deadly bashings for refusing to remove rubbish; they have been lynched for skinning dead cows.

India has changed since Hazari’s time. A population of 1.3 billion, with nearly 40% in urban areas, produces untold amounts of waste, much of it hazardous and toxic. The caste dimension of waste management is the element in the Swachh Bharat campaign that cannot speak its name. Yet sustained change in practices depends on changing attitudes and beliefs. Respect, dignity, training, and fair reward for steady work are the essence of that change.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey are co-authors of Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (Harvard University Press, 2018). Doron works at the Australian National University, Canberra, and Jeffrey for the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.