Shame on you!

A television advertisement made to publicize the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan feels like an attempt by the government to wash its hands of the entrenched social injustice and dire poverty

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sanitation drive has become the flavour of the season. TV channels, newspapers or social media – it is being talked about everywhere. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is being seen differently by different sections of society, depending on their interests and perspective. A TV spot on the drive is worth discussing here, given that TV is a powerful medium with a wide reach. In this advertisement, there are three main characters, two female and one male. In separate scenes, the women are shown littering and the man is urinating in the open. While exhorting viewers to keep their surroundings clean, film personality Anupam Kher says, “Have some shame, cleanse your thinking.” If the admen didn’t have to show someone urinating, they would have gone for three women. That is because the so-called elite, the dwij, believe it is the poor Dalits, especially the women, who are responsible for littering and dirtying public places. “These people of lower castes will never change, they sit down anywhere [to relieve themselves]” is an oft-repeated comment that every poor Dalit has often heard.

Where does the real problem lie?
In these TV commercials, those responsible for dirtying public places include Mannu aunty, who is a city dweller, and Laxmi bhabhi and Sukhiya bhaiya, both of whom live in a village. All of them are either lower or lower-middle class.

Mannu aunty throws garbage on the road from her first-floor house. She misses, her garbage bag landing next to the roadside bin, and the kids playing on the street shame her by clapping. However, the admen have missed the point. The real problem is that the garbage is not collected by the civic bodies and is allowed to rot in the bins. There is no waste management system in the poor, unauthorized residential localities. It is only when the people complain that the municipalities turn their attention towards these areas. And that too when some big leader happens to visit the area or an accident takes place. Laxmi bhabhi goes to the village pond to wash utensils and throws her household garbage into the pond. Some women sitting on the opposite ghat clap to shame her. Laxmi bhabhi may argue that the kitchen refuse will be consumed by the fish. But this also shows that there is no water supply in Laxmi bhabhi’s house, as is the case in most villages of the country. (Imagine the plight of Dalits who live outside the villages!) Sukhiya bhaiya is squatting next to the bus stop and urinating when a bus arrives. When he boards the bus, the conductor and other passengers clap. He is also garlanded. Even metro cities in India lack adequate public conveniences, let alone a village, and wherever they do exist, they are so filthy that no one uses them. That is why men, whether they are poor villagers or Mercedes-owners, urinate in the open. When everyone does it, why only laugh at Sukhiya bhaiya? Why should only he be shamed?

The people of this class are being shamed even otherwise, even if they have done no wrong. Due to a lack of basic facilities, they have always been putting their self-respect and even their lives at stake. People of this class are born in filth; they live in filth and die in filth. This is a centuries-old problem, which has its genesis in Brahmanical thinking and Hindu religious beliefs. This set of beliefs denies all human rights to women and Dalits, and forces them to endure injustice without complaining.

Lack of cleanliness is a social problem. To tackle it effectively, we will have to first admit that it is a function of poverty and injustice. Around 53 per cent of the households in India do not have toilets. Government schools and hospitals, whether in cities or villages, railway stations or slum clusters lining the railway tracks – everywhere there is a lack of clean toilets. Everywhere you can find puddles of stagnant water, open drains and heaps of garbage that are breeding grounds of flies and mosquitoes. This is the true face of India. This is why the residents of these areas routinely fall sick and even ordinary ailments prove fatal for their children. The death rate in these localities is higher than the average. Vector- and water-borne diseases such as malaria, typhoid and cholera and contagious ones such as TB have a permanent presence here and it is difficult for the people to protect themselves from these ailments and, if afflicted, to fight them.

All Indians should now accept that in our country specific castes have been assigned sanitary work. These castes have been placed at the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. They are neither educated nor have access to basic facilities. Human scavenging, though outlawed, is still common in many parts of the country, employing more than two lakh people. For want of alternatives and awareness, the people of these castes continue to do this work. We all see how women sweep the streets and carry garbage from homes every morning. They are forced to pick up and carry rotting, foul-smelling garbage on their heads. They neither have gloves nor shoes. They are paid so little that the men and children (having quit school) join in to support their families. Their families live amid filth. Crores of poor people of this country are condemned to this wretched life. One needs to be sensitive to their pain. Garbage means two entirely different things for the rich and the poor. When we talk of Swachh Bharat, let us remember that waste management is big business in India – a business that involves huge capital and moneybags.

Published in the January 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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