The prime minister had good reasons to preen on Gandhi Jayanti last week. Not only had he succeeded - in the space of just three years - in reducing the Father of the Nation to a mere mascot for his Swachh Bharat Mission, but the mission itself was proving to be a resounding success. Narendra Modi's other pet projects with exhortatory titles such as Make in India, Start-Up India, Stand-Up India et al may be floundering but Clean India has a lot to show for it.
Even discounting the bombast that is so typical of the Modi regime, the figures trotted out by government officials are impressive. The centrepiece of the cleanliness mission is to make India "open defecation free" by October 2, 2019 - a promise the prime minister made from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his first Independence Day speech in 2014.
Since then, Central government departments, state administrations and district officials have been pursuing the goal with excessive zeal and speed. In a newspaper article, the former diplomat and new housing minister, Hardeep S. Puri, claimed that in the last three years about 50 million toilets have been constructed in rural India and 3.8 million in cities and towns; that 2,48,000 villages, 203 districts and five states (Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Uttarakhand and Haryana) are now open defecation free; and that "credible surveys show that 85% of toilets built under this mission are being used".
This claim is questionable given that numerous newspaper reports by journalists on the ground have noted that toilets are often used for storage or other purposes since the chronic lack of water supply renders them unusable.
Even so, there is no doubt that the Swachh Bharat Mission has managed to build millions of toilets, persuaded - and often coerced - rural folks and urban slum dwellers to use them, and most of all, garnered support from even those sections of the urban middle and upper classes that may not otherwise be enamoured of the priorities and predilections of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party regime.
This was evident on October 2. Apart from government-sponsored essay and painting competitions on the Swachh theme that attracted hordes of participants, a number of television channels - including ones that are branded "liberal" - devoted the entire day to programmes focused on cleanliness. And film stars and bank CEOs and sundry beautiful people dutifully donned masks and held aloft brooms in a show of cleaning the beaches of Mumbai and the streets of Delhi.
Ironically, though, the men and women who actually wield brooms - not for photo-ops on one designated day of the year but day after day, generation upon generation - were not to be seen anywhere. But then they have always remained invisible to us even if they are ubiquitous.
The biggest failing of the Swachh Bharat Mission - no matter how many kudos it may get from international agencies and national media - is its complete blindness towards the people who do the cleaning. Rather than ending the abject misery of those who clean our filth, clear our garbage and unblock our sewers, the thousands of crores of rupees being spent on making India open defecation free could end up worsening their plight - undoing the statutory gains they made after years of sustained struggle.
In her searing and aptly titled book, Unseen, journalist Bhasha Singh brought to light the horrific practice of manual scavenging that persists in many parts of India despite the 1993 law banning it. "Manual scavenging," she noted, "means the picking up of human excrement by another human being with his or her hands. It is carried out in private latrines and communal latrines built by governmental and non-governmental organizations." It includes gathering human excrement in a bucket and then throwing it at a fixed place as well as cleaning of septic tanks "which function as waste disposal in toilets in some people's homes or in municipalities."
An amendment to the 1993 Act was passed by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2013. Entitled the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, the definition of a manual scavenger has been expanded to include those who clean septic tanks, open drains and railway tracks.
Almost all states deny they have manual scavengers and the official figure for India as a whole stands at 13,368. Those who know even a little of the subject treat this number as a cruel joke. According to the 2011 census, 21 lakh households use dry latrines or open drains, while the Socio Economic Caste Census noted that in rural India, 1.82 lakh households have at least one member working as a manual scavenger. The numbers have multiplied manifold after the expansion in the definition of manual scavenger in 2013.
But states still remain in denial. Delhi, for instance, claims zero manual scavengers but in just five weeks since August this year, 10 people lost their lives while entering manholes filled with noxious fumes and swirling with human waste.
Despite the spate of "sewer" deaths in the capital of India, young men - for as little as Rs 250 a day - continue to do the work, without any protective gear or health care benefits. A common refrain of municipal workers in the wake of the deaths was: "The government has allocated billions of rupees for the Swachh Bharat Mission but no facilities are provided to the sanitation workers."
But for the more politically conscious activists who have been waging a relentless battle against the utterly inhuman and degrading practice in all its forms, "protective gear" or better "health facilities" are not the answer. The root of the problem, they rightly insist, lies not in a lack of funds but in the wretchedness and pervasiveness of the Hindu caste system.
Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan who won the Magsasay award last year for his decades-long campaign to end manual scavenging has repeatedly pointed out that in India "there is an inexorable link between occupation and caste; the occupation of manual scavenging is linked with caste. We have to break the link between caste and occupation before we set out to achieve Swachh Bharat."
The prime minister's refusal to say a word about the caste dimensions of the cleanliness issue (he was, typically, silent about the men who died cleaning manholes) makes the campaign doomed from the start, says Wilson. In fact, there is a growing fear that the reckless haste in constructing toilets in the countryside without proper planning of waste disposal and increasing the number of septic tanks in urban areas in the absence of a well-planned sewage system could end up reviving manual scavenging in a big way.
Given the huge fund at its disposal, the Swachh Bharat Mission could direct more of it to mechanized waste disposal systems and make the complete eradication of manual scavenging one of its goals. But the government is unwilling to even acknowledge the problem exists, leave alone accepting the historical reasons - sanctioned by Brahminical notions of pollution and purity - that have allowed it to persist.
The malaise runs much deeper. Manual scavenging may be the most egregious manifestation, literally an excrescence, of the Hindu caste system but casteism in other forms is also on the rise today. The attack on Dalit lives and livelihoods, the assault on Dalit youth who dare to watch a garba dance performance or sport a moustache and the hounding of intellectuals such as Kancha Ilaiah who cogently critique the pathologies embedded in Brahminical thought and practice are all part of the new aggression that threatens to reverse the halting steps towards a less unequal society that India had taken since Independence.
But while the forces of an ascendant Hindutva are certainly responsible for the regression we are witnessing, the sad truth is that even those of us who think of ourselves as secular and liberal tend to be either genuinely ignorant or wilfully blind to the ingrained hierarchies and unconscionable inequities of a system based on caste that pollutes our society, corrodes our collective humanity. The Swachh Bharat Mission must give us pause to see the filth within.