On 13 November 2013, Nathubhai Parmar, a social worker from Ahmedabad, took many photos of men and women carrying night soil on their heads at Surendranagar, Badhvan and Syala in Gujarat. Manual scavenging had been banned in the country but then chief minister Narendra Modi did not deem it fit to put an end to the ignoble practice in his shining Gujarat.
On 11 November, the annual report of Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) was tabled in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha. The report claimed that the men and women of Dalit community were still engaged in manual scavenging. Earlier, citing news reports, the CAG had written to the state government seeking an enquiry on the matter and appropriate action if the reports were found true. However, the CAG said, no satisfactory reply was forthcoming from the state government.
At that time, Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and the image of a shining Gujarat was being projected all over the country. The nation was being told how Modi had transformed Gujarat and so he should be made the prime minister of the country. The media had virtually launched a campaign on this issue.
Now, the media is hyping Modi’s Swacchta Abhiyan. A budget is being allocated for the campaign and advertisements are being made to promote it.
The Government of Gujarat had also allocated a budget for the elimination of manual scavenging and had claimed that the allotted amount had been spent and that the Dalits had been freed from their inhuman occupation. However, the reality was that the Dalits were still engaged in manual scavenging. The government needs the Dalits to continue carrying night soil because now big companies are entering the business of cleaning and sanitation. They also want to get into the business of stitching clothes, cutting hair and washing clothes. If some castes are being freed from their traditional occupations it is not with the objective of ending the Varna system. The Dalit of Varna system will be the Dalit of the new class system.
We should also spare a thought as to why the media tried to hide the fact that manual scavenging persists in Gujarat. Should the media be able to see the miserable condition of the Dalits only after the CAG points it out? The media is supposed to keep an eye on whatever is happening around them and let society know if any section of the people is being forced to do something illegal, inhuman or humiliating. After the CAG report was tabled, Nathbhai Parmar clicked photos to prove that the figures quoted were corrected. But these pictures should have been clicked in the lanes and bylanes of Gujarat’s towns earlier – when the media was shouting from the rooftops that everything was hunky-dory in Gujarat. The media was not saying that the lavatories being built in Gujarat using government funds were useless.
The CAG reports often expose the claims of governments and the gap between what they preach and practise. The media should use the CAG report as a tool of self-appraisal. What did it miss? And why? The events, situations and people ignored by the media due to social reasons should be the subject matter of our study.
The CAG has also commented on the Gujarat government’s claims vis-à-vis the social sector. The contrast between the claims and the reality up to the year 2012 are documented in this report. It has a section devoted to the arrangements of meals in hostels of Dalit students.
The report says that there are 64 Dalit hostels in Gujarat, with a capacity of housing 4,923 students. As on 31 March 2012, 4,044 students were staying in these hostels. It was claimed that in the period 2009-12, a sum of Rs 8.53 crore was spent on providing meals in these hostels. The dining facilities of 39 hostels in 16 districts were inspected between January and April 2012. The hostels even lacked potable water, the CAG found. The report has interesting details about how the funds allocated for providing meals to the Dalit students were siphoned off. For instance, in the period 2009-2011, the machines rented from a contractor for cleaning and grinding wheat somehow gobbled up 11,945kg of wheat valued at Rs1.90 lakh. In addition, Rs 1.05 lakh was paid to the contractor for the grinding and cleaning the wheat.
The government said that Dalit students had made verbal complaints that rotis made from adulterated flour were being served to them, affecting their digestive health. The CAG asks why, then, a sample of the flour was not sent for analysis and why no action was taken against the contractor who supplied the wheat and the one who got it cleaned and ground.
In this democracy, Dalits are playthings for the powers that be. The media is light years away from the Dalits and wants to remain so. It needs a very special reason – some earth-shattering event – to peek into Dalit homes. Sometimes, when the media wants to invoke feelings of sympathy, it remembers Dalits. But the media would never want the plight of the Dalits to fade the halo of the shining Gujarat. Those in the media has become fellow-travellers with those in power.
Published in the December 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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