Saturday, May 27, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

I approached this place on a bright morning, at around 6 am, on the back of a motorcycle driven by Purshottam Vaghela, a Dalit activist employed by Janvikas, an NGO that works with manual scavengers. One man stood in its centre, sprinkling a white powder on the ground, while two others shovelled trash from the container into the back of a tractor. As I walked towards the man in the middle, I felt myself step on something mushy, and realised that it had stuck to my shoe. I looked, and saw that it was a paste of the white powder and fresh excrement.

The man was Kaushik Kalubhai Solanki. He looked to be somewhere in his thirties, and said he was a Dalit, working full-time with the Ahmedabad municipal corporation. This place, he explained, served as an open toilet, and he came here every morning to clean it. According to the 2011 census, some 28,000 of the 1.2 million households under the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had no sanitary facilities, and their members defecated in the open. Of the households that did have sanitary facilities, 188 had dry latrines cleaned by hand, and just under 6,000 had single-pit latrines, which are often emptied manually. About 73,500 had latrines linked to septic tanks, which are also typically drained by manual scavengers.

Solanki carried a long-handled instrument that resembled a wooden mop, but the crosspiece, instead of a rag, sported rows of iron spikes along its bottom. Solanki used it to scrape faeces off the ground prior to sprinkling the area with the powder—bleaching powder, as it turned out, which is a disinfectant. Once he scraped together a pile, the men with the shovels threw it into the tractor along with the trash, to be dumped in a landfill.

Solanki had no water to use for his job, and there was not a single tap in sight. He lifted one of his slippered feet, sole to the top. It was caked thickly in the same mixture I had stepped in.

It was not easy to catch Solanki at work. What he does, and what other sanitation workers in Ahmedabad do, is rarely witnessed by the majority of the city’s residents, including the people they clean up after. Those who defecate in the open tend to do so before daybreak, when darkness affords them some privacy. Most sanitation workers, in Ahmedabad as in other cities, begin their shifts very early, and by the time the whole city begins its day their work is done. This makes their labour largely invisible—though if they ever stopped, the results would be all too noticeable.

I spent three days in Ahmedabad, visiting scores of neighbourhoods and meeting several activists and social workers. For the first two days, I set off into the city in mid morning, by which point sanitation workers had already cleaned the spaces where open defecation occurs. I spent several hours driving around neighbourhoods near the city centre with Saumil Fidelis, a young Janvikas activist. He was pleasantly surprised that we did not see signs of open defecation, and told me the situation in these places had improved. “It seems there has been some action on our complaints,” he said.

On the third day, on which I met Solanki, I woke up two hours before dawn to join Vaghela on a motorbike tour of places such as Odno Tekro, Sarkivad, Nagorivad and Juna Vadaj—slums largely occupied by Dalits and Muslims. The sanitary conditions in all the areas we visited were very poor, though slightly better than in Millat Nagar. Some areas had public latrines with sewer connections, but even in these, the cleaners, all employed by contractors running these latrines for the municipal corporation, had only brooms and crude tools to work with, and no safety equipment at all.


When I sat down to speak with Rathod, I learnt that nothing that I had observed was exceptional. Rathod regularly leaves his home before dawn, with a camera in hand, to document open defecation, uncovered excreta and the labour of sanitation workers. On the screen of his small digital camera, he pulled up some of his photographs and videos. An entire collection of images showed children defecating in the open. One series of videos, shot in public latrines in various parts of the city last year, showed floors almost completely covered in faeces, and sanitation workers cleaning them with brooms and other crude tools, sometimes with the help of a few buckets of water. The scenes were far worse than anything I had seen in the city’s public latrines myself, and, even watching on the tiny screen, I felt a violent revulsion. On several occasions, unable to watch any more, I asked Rathod to stop the footage.

Rathod said he and his colleagues regularly sent such videos and photographs to municipal officials. They made it a point to send a large batch of them out to officials in September last year, just as Gujarat was preparing to declare the end of open defecation in all urban areas. That did not stop the government from going ahead with the declaration.

As of mid April, on the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin website, a ranking of districts “based on IHHL+ODF coverage”—that is, on the availability of individual household latrines and the absence of open defecation—showed Ahmedabad district as the best in the country, with “100.00%” coverage. The top 14 spots in the ranking were all occupied by districts in Gujarat.


Nobody has a reliable count of how many manual scavengers have died on the job in India. The National Crime Records Bureau counts deaths due to “fall in pit/manhole”— in 2014, for instance, the record shows 780 fatal falls into pits, and 195 into manholes—but has no indication as to how many of these involved manual scavengers. The Safai Karmachari Andolan has identified 487 deaths of manual scavengers on the job since 1993, but this only includes cases with corroborating documentation, from only 16 states. Sana Sultana, the SKA’s media coordinator, told me the organisation does not have the resources to monitor the numbers across the rest of the country. By the SKA’s count, so far only 57 families of deceased manual scavengers have been paid the compensation due to them under the Supreme Court judgment.

What is clear is that manual scavengers continue to work in sewers in dangerous conditions, and to die doing so. This March, in Bengaluru, three manual scavengers died of asphyxiation while trying to clear a congested sewer without any safety equipment. (The gear for such work should include breathing apparatus, protective clothing, proper lighting, and detectors of poisonous gases such as methane, as well as mechanised cleaning equipment such as suction pipes.) All three were employed by a firm contracted by the local water board, and owned by the Ramky Group, a Hyderabad-based company with interests in real estate and waste management. (The company has been contracted to build numerous waste-processing plants under the Swachh Bharat Mission.) The Karnataka government announced that it would pay compensation to the families of the dead workers, and registered an FIR against the contractor.

Down The Drain: How the Swachh Bharat Mission is heading for failure

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