The symbolism of the Prime Minister kicking off Swaccha Bharat cleaning drive at Valmiki Nagar, home to "safai karmacharis" or sanitation workers, most of whom belong to the lower castes is not lost on anyone. It only reinforces Hindu upper caste privilege, reminding the residents that they are fit for nothing but cleaning our filth.
Hindus, who compromise the majority of our country, are a weird people.
One of the underlying tenets of Hinduism is the concept of purity. The caste system followed by Hindus is based on this concept. The people of higher castes are supposed to be "twice born" or have earned merit in previous births and so are deemed more pure than others. Following the same logic, the lowest castes are the most impure.
Savarnas, in effect, telling the Shudras and Dalits "You didn't do enough to earn merit points to climb the caste ladder, just too bad! Now go clean my shit (literally) or burn my dead!"
I have seen countless women suffer various forms of Obsesseive Compulsive Disorder which stems from this urge for ritual purity. (from my limited understanding. Disclosure: I'm not a trained professional in the line of psychology or psychiatry) However, it remains undiagnosed and untreated by a professional because who gets a diagnosis for just being very clean?
Also, all that touches the impure also becomes impure so it's easy to see where that leads.
The excreta of the body too is part of the impurity. So anything related to excretion is dirty, impure. It is the reason people go to the fields while constructed toilets in homes lie unused. Or that indescribable horror of humanity, the dry latrines located at the backs of homes, in which people defecate and leave their shit for others, "untouchable" people - mostly women- to carry and dispose of it.
The dry latrines are located at the backs of homes so the women of the house don't need to venture out of the homes, keeping their "honour" intact. This false sense of honour is also why mostly women are employed to access the dry latrines.
These beliefs are the reason sanitation drives are failing, because If we don't try to work at the roots, of trying to change these mind sets, we will not go far.
Any intentions of bringing about real change of a Swaccha Bharat must begin with a genuine attempt at changing the lives of Dalits who make up 95% of the sanitation workforce, in cities like Bombay, who are forced to live in filth themselves.
At the least, basic safety practices should be undertaken while these men put their lives on the line for us. Medical cover while working, education for their children and habitable housing should be provided. Alternative sources of livelihood should also be provided.
Segregation of our bodies from our filth has worked to the advantage of us, the few, the privileged Savarnas. It's time to put an end to it.
Swaccha Bharat will not be built by hashtags and photo ops alone, Mr. Prime Minister!