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Swachh Bharat scheme will only lead to deaths of more manual scavengers, says activist

Bezwada Wilson says the casteist mindset will prevail when it comes to cleaning of sewage pits built with the toilets

By Vishal Narayan in Delhi
  • Published 14.07.19, 7:46 PM
  • Updated 14.07.19, 11:53 PM
  • 2 mins read
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A manual scavenger’s body being taken out of a septic tank in Howrah district. (Representative picture) Telegraph file picture

In her budget speech last week finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioned the union government’s flagship scheme of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’. She listed the scheme, which envisions an India free of open defecation, as a success, also mentioning that under the present government, 9.6 crore toilets were constructed since October 2, 2014. She also said that more than 5.6 lakh villages had become Open Defecation Free (ODF).

The comment made her predecessor from the opposition party raise his eyebrows. Congress' P Chidambaram, the former finance minister shared his doubts about the scheme in the Rajya Sabha, saying that the it had only perpetuated casteism in rural India. At the same time, he advised the government to speak to Bezwada Wilson, well-known crusader for the right of manual scavengers. Taking a cue from him, this website spoke to the national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, who shared his views on the much vaunted scheme of the government.

Mr Chidambaram said recently that the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has further perpetuated casteism in the hinterland. What is your take on it?

As of now we have heard that the government has created about 9 crore toilets in the rural India. And we are all aware that in rural areas, there is no underground drainage system. So, if there’s no drainage system , 9 crore toilets mean 9 crore septic tanks. All these toilets are not twin-pit and even twin-pits need cleaning every 2-3 years, depending to the size of the family and size of the pit.  We don’t have any mechanised way to remove all that sewage. So, how can you expect that kind of a system in the villages to work without perpetuating casteism?

Every now and then one hears of someone dying of toxic gases while cleaning septic tanks. How rampant would you say these deaths are and are they on the wane, given the popularity of the government’s cleanliness drive?

The incidences of manual scavengers who die while cleaning the septic tanks are gradually increasing. We have based this information on our visits to places around the country. We had undertaken a nationwide yatra in 2016-17. During that yatra we found out 1790 deaths had happened. The number must be much higher, but we were able to collect only this much information.

Are such deaths being reported from villages also?

More such deaths are being reported from urban and semi-urban areas because they have more toilets. Now, we are making people in the villages use the toilets. If at all they do use them, the question arises, who is going to clean them. Why are you adding to the misery to the people? The government should have come up first with some mechanised way to clean the toilets. Besides, according to data, people in these villages too are not using these new toilets because there have no water.

What would you say is the government’s overall success with the rehabilitation of manual scavengers?

There are lakhs of scavengers who are waiting to be rehabilitated. The government has not spent a single rupee on their rehabilitation, whereas, you are now spending public money to kill more of them. This scheme is to kill the people.

What do you suggest the government should have done? There must be a way around it, you cannot allow people to defecate in the open forever.

You have to build the infrastructure first. When you build the toilet, you have to build the infrastructure in the same proportion. The government knows everything. Still, despite knowing, it has gone ahead with the scheme this way. You are killing people knowingly. This is only a political scheme, which the government has hoisted under pressure from the World Bank or some such international organisation. The condition of those who provide the sanitation has gone worse in these past 5 years with this scheme. This is a very a casteist mindset.