How Can It Be OK For Humans To Be Neck Deep In Sewage?


Dalit writer Desraj Kali launched a scathing attack on the Modi government’s campaign at a session in the Jaipur Lit Fest. But Tharoor’s statements obviously made more news.

The fourth day of the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a session called Swachh Bharat: The Indian Story. On the panel was Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram; Anustup Nayak, an education entrepreneur; Sanchaita Gajapati Raju, an activist working towards providing safe drinking water and sanitation to the marginalised; and Desraj Kali, a prolific Dalit writer from Punjab who writes about the literature and culture of Punjab and Dalit issues.

To no one’s surprise, reports on the session in the mainstream media focused on remarks made by Tharoor.The Hindu carried a story stating that Tharoor condemned the Modi government’s execution of the Swachh Bharat mission. The Deccan Chronicle and NDTV carried a Press Trust of India copy stating that Tharoor was disappointed at not seeing “significant progress” in the Swachh Bharat campaign.

While critical remarks on the government made by a member of the Opposition deserves news space, one wished reports focused more on Kali, who launched a scathing attack on the campaign and spoke of the many problems that bog Swachh Bharat.

Kali 15 minutes into the session stated, “Swachh Bharat is a failed idea.” We spoke to him on the sidelines of the literature festival to know more. Kali is also an advisor to Safai Mazdoor Union in Punjab. Hence, has worked closely with Safai Karamcharis.

Kali told us, “People who clean garbage are Dalits and no one is focusing on them.” He goes on to say, “Twenty two thousand sewage cleaners die every year because of the poisonous gasses inside the sewage. They are not provided necessary equipment. No gloves, No masks, no ropes, no hooks nothing.” Kali further talks about an RTI application filed by Safai Kamgar Vikas Sangh that shows that 25 sewage cleaners die every month on an average.

He also talked about the hurdles that the bureaucracy poses, “…inke mann mein aap safai daal hi nahin saktey.Pehle inke sar ki safai honi zaroori hai. Inke mindset ki safai honi zaroori hai. [First, you need to clean up their minds and mindsets.]”

“Congress had Nirmal Bharat. BJP ne bharat ki swachatta ka brahamanikaran kar diya. Safai toh ki nahi. [BJP has Brahamanised the cleanliness movement.]” Kali says. Kali is familiar with the struggles Dalits face, growing up he would lift carcasses of animals to make ends meet. He states Swachh Bharat will only succeed when we recognise and protect the force that can make Swachh Bharat a success, that is, the Dalit community.

At the session Kali spoke against the lack of equipment needed for sewage cleaners to get inside manholes. “They consume alcohol to tackle the influence of poisonous gasses and stink before they get inside the manhole – That’s how they end up getting addicted to drugs,” Kali said adding that, “98% sewage cleaners die before they even reach their age of retirement.”

Kali also pointed out some flaws in the contract system. Apart from poor working conditions, salaries are abysmally low, he said. “All these people want is permanent jobs, medical insurance, and better education for their children.” he said.

You can hear edited excerpts from our conversation with Kali here:

[video type='youtube' id='365' height='s-wNOsC']

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