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Dark Anecdotes of the Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

By Himanshu Hari

‘India is a nation where one section of the society is supposed to do worship; however, the other section is expected to lift the faeces.’

With the advent of the NDA government in 2014, the Indian economy saw a surge in its growth rate with the implementation of many new policies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives like Make in India and Digital India garnered much appreciation from all around the nation. One such initiative was Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA), initiated on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti in 2014. A ‘JAN ANDOLAN’ wherein people aimed to clean up the streets, roads and other public spaces was created, with the vision of making India clean by 2019 – the year of culmination of NDA’s tenure and the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. People from various sections of the society, from government officials to jawans, sportspersons to celebrities, industrialists to spiritual leaders, all came forward and contributed their shares. But eventually, it became a photo-op of sorts where people joined hands only because it was the trend to upload pictures on social media. The contributions of actual heroes who have been doing this work since independence and even before that, were forgotten.

Open defecation has affected children around the world and has even been addressed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, wherein measures have been suggested to eradicate open defecation by 2030. The SBA aimed at making the nation free of open-defecation by 2019. The all-encompassing SBA also made provisions for the elimination of manual scavenging – a stigmatized hereditary profession that is very prevalent in India. But the media hype and publicity drives around SBA seem to have put this noble objective on the backburner. It is worthwhile to consider the developments in the lives of manual scavengers as we mark 4 years of SBA.

Manual scavenging has been and is still a caste-based occupation in India, with the Dalits being the unfortunate victims of the system. According to International Labor Organization, there are 3 kinds of manual scavenging in India:

  1. Removal of human excrement from simple pit latrines without a water seal

  2. Cleaning septic tanks

  3. Cleaning gutters and sewers

Though the government is constructing toilets in every rural and urban area, it is still using old technology. Most of the toilets are attached to septic tanks which have to be cleaned by manual scavengers only. There are already 9.6 million dry latrines which flush waste in the open and with the addition of the new toilets shows the lack of government in addressing this major inhuman profession.


Table-1 shows the prevalence of open defecation in rural India. The above data has been taken from the National Family Health Survey-3 and National Family Health Survey-4. The idea of interpretation of this data has been taken from Diane Coffey and Dean Spears work ‘Open Defecation in Rural India, 2015-16-Levels and Trends in NFHS-4.

The first column shows the data from NFHS-3 (2005-06) and the rest of the columns show the data from NFHS-4. The data from column 1 and column 2 is our point of consideration. Here we will consider the data collected by Panel-A and analyze it in terms of manual scavenging. Panel A reports the percentage of rural households disposing of their faeces in the open. It shows the percentage of rural households using a pit latrine, using a latrine with a tank and using a toilet that flushes into a sewer. If we compare the data for 2005-06 with the data for 2015-16, we see a decline of 20 percentage points in open defecation. But on the other side, we see an increase in the usage of latrine with a tank (13.6 in 2005-06 to 25.5 in 2015-16). According to the definition given by the ILO for manual scavenging, we can conclude that in most rural areas, people have actually started using pit latrines, latrines with a tank and toilets that flush into a sewer more, which is problematic because in India people believe that the cleaning and clearing of these pits are the jobs of the untouchables. With the increase in the number of pit toilets, the demand for manual scavengers is expected to have risen. This reverts back to the same inhuman practice of manual scavenging.

This is an interpretation of the above survey which was done at a household level, but when we expand our observation we see that the problem of open defecation and manual scavenging is very common in one of India’s largest public-sector units. Indian Railways are the largest employer of manual scavengers with unknown numbers on the page. Many trains in India drop the excreta on the tracks itself and it has to be cleaned by these manual scavengers whom Indian Railways hire on a contractual basis. They are hired as ‘SWEEPERS’, so as to make it hard to identify them as scavengers. They nearly earn 200 INR per day, and although they get gloves to work, the hygiene awareness is so low that they hardly use it. This sad reality is running in the country since the inception of Indian Railways with minor positive changes.

The employment of manual scavengers is a criminal offense in India. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 appeals for the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families. But sadly, as per the latest socio-economic caste census data released in 2015, India still has 1,80,657 households that are involved in manual scavenging. Although the government has introduced many laws to eradicate this issue from the society, it is still widely prevalent. The problem of manual scavenging can be solved mainly by using new technologies in India. Recently, the government of Kerala signed an MoU with a startup firm in a bid to tackle the menace of manual scavenging. It will allow civic bodies to use robots for cleaning the sewer holes in the state. Many major steps have been taken under the SBA such as the construction of two pit toilets which don’t require emptying out of faecal sludge matter but the major challenge is transforming the mindset of people. There is a need for behavioral changes in the people. With a dream of Clean India, Swachha Bharat Abhiyaan can only be made successful if manual scavenging in the states is completely eliminated and is replaced by modern technology. For Swachha Bharat to succeed, we need to highlight its successes but equally importantly, discuss the constraints to ensure course correction. It is only then that we will be able to meet our goal. It should be the moral duty of us (the citizens) and the government to look after such a vulnerable section of the society and include them in this rapidly growing economy.

The inspiring lyrics of the Swachha Bharat Anthem penned by Shri Prasoon Joshi and rendered immortal by the enchanting Shri Kailash Kher ring in my ears: “Swachha Bharat Ka irada kar liya humne, desh se ye vada kar liya humne”. Swachha Bharat will remain a distant dream as long as the malady of manual scavenging blots Indian society.

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