As the shit floats to the surface, literally, we are suddenly horrified in Chennai and rush to cover it up with 'Spirit of Chennai' photo-ops, smiling faces handing out food packets. Those food packets, however, turn into shit floating before our faces and who is cleaning it up? The Dalits, of course. They are being carted from all across Tamil Nadu to deal with the situation.
But almost none of them have the equipment – gumboots, masks, gloves – that is mandatory to do such hazardous and filthy activity. If there is any evidence of the sheer hollowness of Narendra Modi's 'Swachh Bharat' (Clean India) campaign, it is this. If he meant business, the first thing he should have done was to see that all the mainly Dalit sanitation workers across to country were provided this safety equipment which is mandated by law and which is still not followed anywhere. This makes all state governments and city and district municipal corporations liable as aiding and abetting manual scavenging which is against the law. It is unconscionable that we allow this situation to continue even as people continue to die in manholes as two sanitation workers recently did in Madurai.
Even without the floods, Chennai is one of the filthiest cities in India (not that any of the other cities is lagging far behind). Instead of cleaning these cities up we want to turn more and more remote parts of them into 'smart cities' to invite the multinational corporations in so that politicians and businessmen can make a killing. These 'smart cities' will inevitably be built on waterbodies or marshlands where water after the rains flows and will no longer be able to flow and we will have
'natural disasters' like the one in Chennai or the earlier ones in Kashmir and Bombay over and over.
'Development' is never about the poor and the marginalised but it is not even about ecology and everyone's survival. So completely obsessed are we with the sight of money. Even when this craze for money comes to bite us right in the arse, as it did recently in Chennai, we seem to learn nothing. Even the amount of shit and filth and sewage water on the roads and all the health hazards this subjects us to do not seem to energise us enough to do something about it. We see it as a temporary aberration. Mainstream media was mainly obsessed with the amount of crores lost in terms of revenue. While people across class and caste in Chennai dealt with the stink of sewage water and the sight of shit that, while an everyday affair, suddenly got too close for comfort.
For Dalit sanitation workers, however, it is a matter of day-to-day life, every day of their lives. The Chennai situation is just a particularly bad day for them. If there is one lesson we must learn from the Chennai situation, it is surely that sanitation is a very serious issue and we have to ensure the safety and security of the sanitation workers who risk their lives every day cleaning our shit, suffer the worst diseases, cope by recourse to the most debilitating forms of addiction and are caught up in a cycle of violence and misery from which there is no escape.
What but the worst form of casteism prevents us from fighting for the rights of sanitation workers? What but the most sickening prejudices makes them get the relief packages last or get kept out of the relief altogether? What further proof do we need that 'progressive' Tamil Nadu is one of the most rotten, caste-ridden societies in India?
How much government expenditure will it take to ensure safety equipment to all sanitation workers, to increase the workforce (which needs to be done tenfold) by increasingly salaries and bettering working conditions? Even if a fraction of the money spent on building 'smart cities' is diverted to the sanitation industry, to safety, workforce building and infrastructural measures, it might become a proper industry, which is what it ought to be, and not a modern form of caste slavery that we take for granted.
When will we realise that this is not just about keeping the lower castes where they are but it won't be long before our own shit chokes us to death?
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Ashley Tellis is an Associate Professor in Gender, Writing and Research at IMHST, BALM, Chennai