HARISH WANKHEDE | 8 OCTOBER, 2019
Clean India Mission’s Collateral Damage
The actualities of India’s rural poverty
The very same day that Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the prestigious Global Gatekeepers Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in New York for the exemplary success of Swachh Bharat Mission, two Dalit kids were beaten dead by a dominant caste person in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh. Their crime was that they defecated in open ground.
The kids were unaware of the progress that India is making in improving sanitation facilities. The ten and twelve years olds neglected their civil duties and failed to participate in the state’s revolutionary plan of making ‘India open defecation free’ on the 2 October, as recently announced by the state.
The kids performed the call of nature according to their wretched condition and thus unknowingly dishonored the clarion call of the regime for making India open defecation free. The defaulters are severely punished, and that is till death by the vigilantes of the village. It appears that to realize the dream of ‘Swachh Bharat’ one has to bear such collateral damages. A violent discipline is needed to achieve such ethical goal.
According to a World Bank Report in 2013, there were around fifty three per cent of households in India that practice open defecation. It also noted that lack of toilets is one of the reasons for high malnutrition in India. The current government recognized this problem and adopted zealous public policies including ‘Clean India Mission’ in 2014 to educate the citizens about a clean environment, hygiene and good health.
It is a promising mission. In the last five years, the government is in competitive mode to prove that our urban-rural landscape is getting cleaner. The rhetoric of cleanliness has figured more often in the propaganda machinery and PR exercises of the current government as lot many celebrities are now involved in the campaign. The Gates award thus endorses its international impact. However, the empirical actualities of our rural poverty and its sociological logic would disturb such hyper design and populist claims of the state.
The murder of the two kids demonstrates the grim reality of rural India and how such popular policies have negligible impact in transforming the precarious conditions in which the marginalized communities, especially the Dalits are condemned to live. It brings to our notice that the idea of ‘cleanliness’ is unavailable to the worst-off sections as the fundamental necessities for a dignified and civil life (housing, water, electricity and sanitation) are visibly absent in their milieu.
The poor Dalit habitats are often outside the village vicinity. Their houses are tattered and it has no basic civil amenities, including drinking water. Certain Dalit communities are forced to do manual scavenging, as there is no other way to clean public or household toilets in the village. The traditional caste norms treated them as ‘impure’ and the dominant sections often avoid civil engagements with these castes. The logic of ‘cleanliness’ does not enter into the minds of the extreme poor people as their squatters are outside the purview of modernist development and a communitarian social life.
To use popular Marxist jargon: the society is divided between the ‘haves and have not’. The poor victim family involved in the above mentioned incident never had the toilet facility and when asked by them earlier, the village authorities had denied the request. In absence of any facility for sanitation, the children went for open defecation. Importantly, the absence of toilet facilities is not only related to the Dalit households, but many other poor slum dwellers would also narrate the similar lack. However the deep-rooted social hatred towards the Dalits has resulted into such violent punishment.
The Dalits in the rural spheres and the Muslims in the urban localities are often ghettoized into hazardous living conditions. The abject poverty, illiteracy and absence of any state aid make these squatters filthy, chaotic and unhealthy. For the middle class sensibilities, presence of such localities is an anathema. A jhuggi, or a squatter or a Dalit basti disturbs the middle class objective to live in a clean and well organized city.
The Dalit or Muslim localities are therefore demeaned as illegal squatters, polluted ghettos and even marked as threat to the urban civilized life in the discussions bourgeois social circles. Their professional choices are belittled with taunts and demeaning adjectives like uncivilized beefeaters, violent butchers, dirty rearers of pigs, unclean leather workers, etc. Their localities are shamed and seen as a blot over the aesthetics of the city. The poor Dalits and the Muslims thus face the maximum rage of such collective hatred and on occasions resulted into terrible violent incidents, including cases of mob lynching.
The bourgeois elite locations in the cities and the feudal domination at the rural life produce a distinct civil attitude, often contaminated by subtle caste and communal hatred. The rhetoric for clean, better and modern living conditions is often competitively pitched against the communities that conventionally been seen as barbarians, uncivil and impure (mainly the Muslims and the Dalits). Those classes and communities that do not operate under the moral call of the ruling elites are categorically pinpointed as responsible brutes for making the cities and society unclean and therefore liable of condemnation and punishment. The anxious middle class marks their presence with degrading and abusive language.
The Clean India Mission has bracketed the ‘Clean Middle Class elites’ against the ‘Dirty Poor Ghettoized mass’. We look into the question of pollution through our privileged class position and hardly understand the structural social reasons that force the poor communities to survive under such grotesque filth. We fail to acknowledge that poverty, social neglect and absence of effective institutional help by the state are the responsible factors for their continued backwardness. The Clean India Mission is directed by the middle class moral prescriptions of decent and clean habitats but without acknowledging the brutal social conditions under which the poor people are surviving. Instead, the middle class morality accuses the poor for making the environment and society dirty and unclean.
The mechanical passion of the current regime for cleanliness and development would turn into a criminal enterprise, if it does not ensure basic human rights, civil amenities and fundamental liberties to every citizen. The need of our time is to ensure cordial social cohesion and mutual respect between different people, especially a need of better humanitarian approach towards those communities that are exclusively involved into dehumanized manual jobs and has been relegated outside the civil society gambit.
The state must play an active role in bringing dynamic reform and educate the dominant sections, mainly the conservative middle class that often victimize the socially marginalized groups under the pretext that they are impure, polluted and dirty.