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Swachh Bharat: A Make-Believe Jan Andolan!

By Pradeep Narayanan, Shireen Kurian and Hemlata Kansotia*

The Central Rural Sanitation Programme was launched as early as in 1986. It adopted the total sanitation approach and became the Total Sanitation Campaign in 1999. The campaign then adopted the Community-led Total Sanitation approach, and was christened the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in 2012.


Then, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it into a ‘people’s movement’ – sort of a flagship programme. The government roped in several entities at various levels and layers — from the Cabinet, ministries, state and district administration, urban authorities to the village Panchayats – to make the campaign successful by informing, advocating, penalising and sometimes, even threatening, citizens to put an end to open defecation.


There is no doubt that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has caught the imagination of the people — and it looks like the governance system at all levels is now working on sanitation. In fact, corporates are into building toilets now and Bollywood is not far behind with a film on the same theme. At no point in time has sanitation got so much limelight as now. Full credit to the Prime Minister!

The unique part of the programme is its almost single-target approach: achieving an Open-Defecation Free India by 2 October 2019, by constructing 12 million toilets in rural India, at a projected cost of ₹1.96 lakh crore. SBM has one of the best websites among the government missions with almost live monitoring of the national programme. There is a live monitoring of four indicators – Household toilets constructed, declared Open-Defecation Free Villages, ODF across Namami Gange and toilet photographs. It has a dashboard that provides live data. In the two days between writing this blog and publishing it, the number of toilets has gone up from “4,97,18,476 household toilets built since 2nd October, 2014” to 4,98,76,851, hinting at more than 70 toilets every minute.

According to the 2011 Census, there were still 26 lakh dry latrines in the country requiring many thousands of families to be engaged in the appalling and degrading occupation of manual scavenging. As per the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC-2011) data of manual scavengers released by the Ministry of Rural Development on 03.07.2015, there were still 1,82,505 households with manual scavengers in only the rural areas of the country[1]. 65,181 households were identified in the state of Maharashtra alone as people still engaged in the practice of cleaning human excreta manually. This number is clearly an under-estimate, for the SECC has enumerated just 356 manual scavengers in the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which as per census-2011, have 2.28 lakh insanitary latrines out of which 10,357 are serviced manually. They are also stated to have 52,767 latrines that are kept clean using scavenging animals even as some of these are cleaned manually from time to time[2]. There is wide variation between the beneficiary numbers stated by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Census, with the former stating a number more than the latter. For example, the figures from the ministry as beneficiaries of their programme were 64,195, 45,822, 57,736 and 35,561 for Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu respectively, whereas corresponding SECC figures for the states were amazingly low at 56, 356, 3592 and 167 respectively. Clearly, the State does not have any credible data on manual scavenging.

One look at the dashboard of the SBM website and the question that comes to mind is instinctive: is the absence of data caused by lack of resources or by absence of political will?


A form of manual scavenging that gets reported on almost regular basis, especially because of the fatal nature of the occupation is the sewer-based work. Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices has been supporting the National Campaign for Sewerage Workers with research on this issue. Its 2014 study, Down the Drain, identified caste system and sub-contracting system as two axes of the wheel that is causing sewer deaths in the country. It recently analyzed and documented media reports on sewer deaths and found the following:

This is just collation of newspaper articles over the last nine months. There would have been a number of unreported incidents. There is absolutely no data that the Government of India shares on sewer deaths, let alone about the number of sewer workers in the country. The Safai Karmachari Andolan has painstakingly collected information on deaths in the sewage system. It does not cover all the states. Figure 1 below, prepared by Scroll, shows the trend. The current year has seen an increasing trend. Neither the state nor the civil society has credible information database to analyse the reasons behind the increasing trend. Is this to do with increasing privatization and sub-contracting or is it the collateral damage of the implementation of the Smart City programme?

It is numbing to know that the ₹1,96,000 crore Swachh Bharat Mission does not even see this as its mandate!

There is a very strong and straight forward law now – the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It not only explicitly bans manual scavenging, including sewer work by the worker, but also provides manual scavengers the right to rehabilitation as entitlement. It is an Act that provides right to dignity and right to rahabilitation in one go. Further, in March, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that is a punishable offence to send mandual scavengers into sewers or septic tanks without adequate safety equipment. It also stipulated a compensation of ₹10 lakh for the family of any manual scavenger who has died, since 1993 while cleaning a sewer. Based on the 2013 Act, the Self Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was revised to provide the following benefits to the identified manual scavengers and their dependents: (i) Onetime cash assistance of ₹40,000/- to identified manual scavengers; (ii) Loans for project cost up to ₹15.00 lakh on concessional rates of interest and; (iii) Credit linked back-end capital subsidy up to ₹3,25,000.

What is the least that was expected from Swachch Bharat Abhiyan – an acknowledgement of this problem and allocation for the scheme? However, Figure 2 below shows the allocation to this scheme during the life of SBM.

Figure 2: Self-employment scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavengers.



The allocation to the scheme is decreasing. It is actually a crime to have an allocation of just Rs 5 crore for a scheme such as this, which is mandated by a Parliamentary Act. It is also an insult to the Supreme Court judgement of March 2013, to the Parliament and of course to the people of India.

At the root of the current sanitation paradigm, there lies a political economy that (a) perpetuates caste system and (b) promotes sub-contracting. Manual scavenging is legally banned.

An upper caste policy-maker does not digest this ban, for this would challenge the very superiority of his caste. It circumvents the ban through an arrangement wherein the Government sub-contracts the ‘task’ to a contractor, in whose name the Government itself ‘uses’ a Dalit worker to go down the drain. The Dalit worker has never seen the contractor. His mai-baap is the sarkaar. He remains a job applicant for permanent work at ages 18, 28, 38 and 48! And the pity is he never gets the job; there is a long queue which undertakes this work with the same dream, for there is no rehabilitation arrangement for the traditional communities who were/are dependent on the ‘scavenging’ task.

Links to Articles

Three sanitation workers die in a sewer in Bengaluru (7 March 2017)


A Dalit youth died while cleaning sewage tank (9 June 2017)


Two workers die in sewer in Vijayawada (15 March 2017)


Four die inside the septic tank in Udaipur (4 April, 2017)


Two sewer workers choke to death in Patti, Punjab (1 May 2017)


Three labourers die while cleaning manhole in Malad (17 Feb 2017)


Two BMC cleaners die in a bid to get phone out of manhole in Powai (13 May 2017)


4 sanitation workers die in MP while cleaning the septic tank (July 31)

Four sanitation workers die of asphyxiation while cleaning a tank (July 15, 2017)


3 sanitation workers suffocate to death (7 August 2017) 2017),sbd:1,ar:1&tbm=nws&ei=PIrLWZXuF4ztvAS7grXwCg&start=0&sa=N&biw=1131&bih=706&dpr=1

Two sanitation workers die after inhaling toxic gas (12 August 2017)

One sanitation worker dies after inhaling toxic Gas while cleaning sewer at Delhi Hospital on (21 August 2017)


Labourer dies without using the Mask in Agra (21 August 2017)



*All views are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation



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