ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Clean India, Unclean Indians Beyond the Bhim Yatra

The Safai Karamchari Andolan traversed 500 districts of the country with the message "stop killing us." The participants, manual scavengers who clean dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks, are forced to carry on this dehumanising work despite laws against it. Will the Swachh Bharat campaign succeed in addressing the issues connected with manual scavenging?

India celebrated the 125th birth centenary of B R Ambedkar on 14 April this year. Continuing the movement he began long ago when he asked the Dalits not to do jobs like manual scavenging, the Safai Karamchari Andolan undertook the Bhim Yatra that travelled across the country for 125 days, passing through 500 districts in 30 states. The organisers called it “a journey of pain and anguish, to tell the country” and the government to “stop killing us” (the manual scavengers) in dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks. It is now a widely accepted fact that the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging still continues in spite of laws created to abolish it,1 and thousands dying in sewers and septic tanks is a reality. The occupation and those engaged in it have been glorified by Mahatma Gandhi and later the Gandhians, who equate “a manual scavenger to a mother taking care of a child.” Prime Minister Modi called it, the vocation of the Valmikis, an “experience in spirituality” (Karamyog 2007). A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member Tarun Vijay, while raising the issue of safai karamcharis in the Rajya Sabha, termed them as “cleanliness martyrs.” The dehumanising practices continue to draw the attention of policymakers, judiciary, executive, civil society organisations and the media. However, the ground reality has hardly seen any substantial change or transformation.

Safai Karamcharis and the State

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