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The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: For Whom and By Whom?

Ankush Pal

On October 2, 2014, the Government of India launched the nationwide campaign Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the Clean India Mission. The declaration of this campaign was much appreciated, and to this day, we see everyone, from celebrities to university students, picking up a broom for cleanliness drives. One of the primary aims was to make India an open defecation-free country, for which toilets have been built across the country. However, this solution may need to be revised, as the premise is that the primary reason for open defecation is poverty, which it is not. In ‘Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development, and the Costs of Caste’, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears discuss the reasons why programmes meant to eradicate open defecation have failed. They have, using data, argued that it is not the lack of economic factors but ” poor sanitation persists in rural India because of unique social forces—in particular, caste” (Coffey & Spears, 2017, p. 5). They support this statement by mentioning examples of nations that are economically less prosperous than India yet have a much lower rate of open defecation.

Even with government support, toilets are seldom used, as the very idea of defecating within the confines of one’s home is linked to purity and untouchability, which can be traced to the notions of caste. “Notions of untouchability and ritual purity that people…invoke while rejecting a functional government latrine. These are not ideas…convenient or comfortable to address for a government…dominated by higher-caste urbanites—and which perpetuates manual scavenging…in its own investment decisions and hiring practices” (ibid, 2017, p. 10).

Each year, we see many individuals pick a broom to clean a particular area—from civil servants and NGO workers to university students and teachers—for Cleaning Drives, which commemorate the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. In doing so, they rely upon the Gandhian perception to look at cleanliness, which which sets only a clean environment as a societal goal and sees the Chaturvarna as functional to society, which in sociological terms may be attributed to stemming from a functionalist perspective. Gandhi had infamously said, “I am not ashamed to call myself a manual scavenger and ask every manual scavenger that he should not feel ashamed of being called the same. To him, this society is based on many services; a scavenger is at the base of every service.” In his magnum opus, Hind Swaraj he also commented that the modern education system was flawed, which could easily be interpreted as an anti-colonial stance. However, he goes on to say that “our ancient school system is enough” (Gandhi, 1909, p. 84). This very ancient school system is infamous for ensuring that a particular section of society—primarily upper-caste men—receive education while the ‘other’—mainly the ‘lower-caste’ groups and even upper-caste women at times—did not receive access to education.

When people pose for photographs during cleaning drives to emphasise that ‘no job is small enough,’ they are doing nothing but mock the occupation many are forced to stay in due to their birth-assigned identity. There will be many among civil society and even the most progressive of bureaucrats, citizens, civil servants, students, teachers, and more who will parrot the functionalist Gandhian notion of caste and celebrate the dehumanising task of sanitation workers, who are often not provided the necessary safety equipment, nor are they able to avail themselves of other basic amenities such as clean water, housing, and healthcare. On the other hand, it is an unfortunate irony that the very people who celebrate the dehumanising occupation of manual scavenging by calling it a ‘necessary duty to mankind’ would only pick up a broom for a few minutes or resort to cleaning a fixed area by picking up trash, but seldom take part in performing the same duty themselves, regularly. If they deem the act of manual scavenging a service to humanity and praise the workers who are systemically forced into it, what is stopping them from serving humanity themselves? Suppose they believe in Gandhi’s beliefs on the necessity of scavengers and do not deem it dehumanising or oppressive. When will they climb down into sewers without any protective gear and manually clean human excreta? After the photo ops are done, everyone then returns to their lives, expecting their surroundings to be clean. They will speak about the necessity of a clean country but will not talk about the thousands of deaths that are caused every year to keep their surroundings clean, where most of the waste is generated by the so-called civilised individuals who regard the working-class Bahujans as ‘impure’ and ‘unclean.’

A Gandhian approach to cleanliness will do nothing more than reinstate and reinvigorate the Chaturvarna, where a particular section of society produces an unequal amount of waste that the marginalised are doomed to clean, and the former will, just to feel better about contributing to a clean environment, pick up a broom once a year and make sure that they post about it on social media. The Solid Waste Management Rule 2016 clearly states that the responsibility for segregating waste lies with the ones who generate it. Yet, the ragpickers are expected to segregate the waste after collecting it manually, and the bureaucrats who claim to become officers for the welfare of the people make minimal efforts to implement this. The ones who generate the waste are least bothered about how they contribute to the ever-growing piles of waste and how the marginalised people who live near the garbage dumps lead their lives. Their responsibility stops only at demanding a clean country and posing for pictures once a year. After this, they then precariously throw their waste just about anywhere, along with the ideas of egalitarianism and social justice they espouse in classrooms—as students and as teachers. On the other hand, sanitation workers are forced to continue their lives with their undignified occupations glorified by those who will never think twice about engaging in such occupations.



  • Coffey, D., & Spears, D. (2017). Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste. HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Gandhi, Mohandas K. (1909). Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Navajivan Publishing House.


Ankush Pal is an undergraduate student of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He studies and writes about the intersections of various identities, the power structures they operate within and perpetuate, and hegemonic narratives. He has been published by media publications like Indian Express, The Wire, and The Quint apart from which his research has been published by Economic & Political Weekly and a book chapter in an edited volume recently.



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