As the Swachh Bharat Mission Enters its Fourth Year, Revisiting Its Progress in Varanasi and Ahmedabad

By Sagar | 1 October 2017

On 2 October 2014, just a few months into his job as prime minister, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission—the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history. Since the launch, Modi has put enormous effort into making the Swachh Bharat Mission a flagship programme of his rule. He spoke of it in his annual Independence Day speeches, televised live from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort, and at campaign rallies in election-bound states. The currency notes introduced after demonetisation bear the Swachh Bharat logo—Gandhi’s signature round glasses. It was a move indicative of the government’s incredible zeal for drawing attention to the campaign.

In the cover story of the May 2017 issue of The Caravan, Sagar examined the implementation of the flagship initiative, concluding that the mission is likely headed for failure. While reporting the story, Sagar visited areas that are closely tied to Modi, such as Ahmedabad, the most prosperous city of Gujarat, the state he ruled for 13 years, and Varanasi, which is his Lok Sabha constituency. (Last year, on the second anniversary of the initiative, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, who was then the urban development minister, declared that the state of Gujarat was free of open defecation in all its urban areas.) In the following excerpt from the story, Sagar discusses his visits. “In Varanasi, as in Ahmedabad,” Sagar writes, “whatever benefits the Swachh Bharat Mission might have brought do not seem to have reached those at the margins of society.”

In the middle of Chamanpuraa residential area about a 20-minute drive across the Sabarmati River from the centre of Ahmedabad, is a wide rectangle of bare ground. A road runs along one side of it, a narrow lane leading to a slum runs along another, and a low wall bounds its remaining edges, separating it from the rough shacks beyond. A hulking green trash container stands to one side. Some graffiti on the wall shows a man with a broomstick standing beside a tree and an Indian flag, with the words “Clean India” floating above him.

I approached this place on a bright morning, at around 6 am, on the back of a motorcycle driven by Purshottam Vaghela, a Dalit activist employed by Janvikas, an NGO that works with manual scavengers. One man stood in its centre, sprinkling a white powder on the ground, while two others shovelled trash from the container into the back of a tractor. As I walked towards the man in the middle, I felt myself step on something mushy, and realised that it had stuck to my shoe. I looked, and saw that it was a paste of the white powder and fresh excrement.

The man was Kaushik Kalubhai Solanki. He looked to be somewhere in his thirties, and said he was a Dalit, working full-time with the Ahmedabad municipal corporation. This place, he explained, served as an open toilet, and he came here every morning to clean it. According to the 2011 census, some 28,000 of the 1.2 million households under the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation had no sanitary facilities, and their members defecated in the open. Of the households that did have sanitary facilities, 188 had dry latrines cleaned by hand, and just under 6,000 had single-pit latrines, which are often emptied manually. About 73,500 had latrines linked to septic tanks, which are also typically drained by manual scavengers.

Solanki carried a long-handled instrument that resembled a wooden mop, but the crosspiece, instead of a rag, sported rows of iron spikes along its bottom. Solanki used it to scrape faeces off the ground prior to sprinkling the area with the powder—bleaching powder, as it turned out, which is a disinfectant. Once he scraped together a pile, the men with the shovels threw it into the tractor along with the trash, to be dumped in a landfill.

Solanki had no water to use for his job, and there was not a single tap in sight. He lifted one of his slippered feet, sole to the top. It was caked thickly in the same mixture I had stepped in.

It was not easy to catch Solanki at work. What he does, and what other sanitation workers in Ahmedabad do, is rarely witnessed by the majority of the city’s residents, including the people they clean up after. Those who defecate in the open tend to do so before daybreak, when darkness affords them some privacy. Most sanitation workers, in Ahmedabad as in other cities, begin their shifts very early, and by the time the whole city begins its day their work is done. This makes their labour largely invisible—though if they ever stopped, the results would be all too noticeable.

I spent three days in Ahmedabad, visiting scores of neighbourhoods and meeting several activists and social workers. For the first two days, I set off into the city in mid morning, by which point sanitation workers had already cleaned the spaces where open defecation occurs. I spent several hours driving around neighbourhoods near the city centre with Saumil Fidelis, a young Janvikas activist. He was pleasantly surprised that we did not see signs of open defecation, and told me the situation in these places had improved. “It seems there has been some action on our complaints,” he said.

On the third day, on which I met Solanki, I woke up two hours before dawn to join Vaghela on a motorbike tour of places such as Odno Tekro, Sarkivad, Nagorivad and Juna Vadaj—slums largely occupied by Dalits and Muslims. The sanitary conditions in all the areas we visited were very poor, though slightly better than in Millat Nagar. Some areas had public latrines with sewer connections, but even in these, the cleaners, all employed by contractors running these latrines for the municipal corporation, had only brooms and crude tools to work with, and no safety equipment at all.

In Sarkivad, a slum in the Shahpur area, we pulled up next to an eight-cabin public latrine that Vaghela said served roughly a hundred households. Scores of men and women headed towards it, each carrying a plastic bottle or a lota full of water. Inside, each of the stalls had a tap, but when I checked none of them had any water.

When I stepped back outside after looking into the stalls, I saw that a small van with a water tank and pump on its back had been parked nearby. Lettering on its side said it was on duty for the municipal corporation. Two men unfurled a hose that started spewing water. The latrine’s caretaker, pinching the end of the hose to form a jet, used it to flush the faeces in the stalls into the drains. This was the only time in the day he got water to help him clean. Jitendra Rathod, another activist with Janvikas, later told me the municipal corporation operated no more than half a dozen such vans, far from enough to cover the whole city.

It did not take long to spot sanitation workers clearing faeces from places much like the one where I saw Solanki, and also from many roadsides and footpaths. I met Gayatri Ben on a footpath in central Ahmedabad, working in the dark. A Dalit, from the Bhangi caste, she said she left home before dawn every day to roam the city streets picking up excrement, armed only with a broom and a metal dustpan. She said she was employed by a firm contracted by the municipal corporation, and was paid Rs 6,000 a month. Narendrabhai Fakira, another sanitation worker and also a Dalit, stood nearby with his hands covered in bleaching powder. He initially thought I was a municipal officer out on inspection, and appeared nervous. When assured that he had nothing to fear, he complained that he did not get so much as water to help him do his job. He carried a long stick with a flat blade attached to one end, which he used as a scraper and a shovel.

When I sat down to speak with Rathod, I learnt that nothing that I had observed was exceptional. Rathod regularly leaves his home before dawn, with a camera in hand, to document open defecation, uncovered excreta and the labour of sanitation workers. On the screen of his small digital camera, he pulled up some of his photographs and videos. An entire collection of images showed children defecating in the open. One series of videos, shot in public latrines in various parts of the city last year, showed floors almost completely covered in faeces, and sanitation workers cleaning them with brooms and other crude tools, sometimes with the help of a few buckets of water. The scenes were far worse than anything I had seen in the city’s public latrines myself, and, even watching on the tiny screen, I felt a violent revulsion. On several occasions, unable to watch any more, I asked Rathod to stop the footage.

Rathod said he and his colleagues regularly sent such videos and photographs to municipal officials. They made it a point to send a large batch of them out to officials in September last year, just as Gujarat was preparing to declare the end of open defecation in all urban areas. That did not stop the government from going ahead with the declaration.

As of mid April, on the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin website, a ranking of districts “based on IHHL+ODF coverage”—that is, on the availability of individual household latrines and the absence of open defecation—showed Ahmedabad district as the best in the country, with “100.00%” coverage. The top 14 spots in the ranking were all occupied by districts in Gujarat.

*

I spent five days in and around Varanasi in early February. It was filthy. I saw huge puddles of leaked sewage, streets strewn with garbage, open drains, and, especially after evening fell, men urinating in the open, including along the city’s fabled ghats.

There were few public latrines, and none that were well maintained. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the city’s most famous locations, I found a handful of fetid portable latrine cabins. The floors were wet with urine, the latrine seats were stained with excreta and sometimes cracked. Over three evenings of my stay in the city, the ghat hosted a grand aarti for the Ganges, which attracted enormous crowds. On each of those evenings, the portable latrines were locked.

By outward appearance, the cleanest public facility I saw was a urinal complex at Maldahiya Crossing, near the railway station. Inside, it was passably clean, although it had no running water and a strong stench.

I visited the office of the Varanasi municipal corporation, the administrative authority of the Swachh Bharat Mission in the city, and located the building’s restroom for the public. It was flooded, and the stench was overpowering. Nobody was going inside, and I could not bring myself to either.

The only area that could be described as clean was the campus of Banaras Hindu University, located near the city’s southern edge. Near it, however, was one of the most unsanitary areas I saw anywhere during my reporting. A ten-minute walk out of a gate near the campus’s famous Vishwanath temple was the residential colony of Ravindrapur. In the midst of it, down an alley too narrow to allow two people to pass each other, was a dense cluster of several dozen shacks, most of them too low for a grown person to stand up straight in. Tall walls penned the settlement in on all four sides, allowing very little light in. I would never even have noticed the tiny entry to the alley from the nearby road. The only reason I found the place was because a few Dalit and OBC students of the university brought me here.

The inhabitants of the shacks are from the Musahar caste, one of the lowest in the traditional hierarchy. In recent years, they told me, their neighbours in the surrounding area had raised the walls around the settlement higher and higher. There was no source of water here, and none of the shacks had a latrine. Those I spoke to said they walked to the university to use a public latrine on its premises, and to collect water from its taps. They complained that the police regularly chased them off the campus.

Census numbers from 2011 showed over 26,000 households in urban Varanasi— around 11 percent of the city’s total—without latrines on their premises. Of these, only an eighth had access to public latrines, and the rest defecated in the open.

In Varanasi, as in Ahmedabad, whatever benefits the Swachh Bharat Mission might have brought do not seem to have reached those at the margins of society. And, again as in Ahmedabad, here the campaign has done very little, if anything at all, to address the inhuman working conditions for sanitation workers, and the entrenched discrimination against them.

In comparison to Ahmedabad, Varanasi had few sanitation workers on the streets. In search of them, I found my way to Jawaharnagar, a neighbourhood situated a few hundred metres behind the ghats, and to a settlement of around a hundred dilapidated houses inhabited by Doms, whose assigned occupation under the caste system is sanitation work. The settlement had few latrines, and no hygienic source of water. A wide, uncovered drain flowed along one side of it, and served as a public latrine. The settlement’s residents told me that they get drinking water from a tanker truck, and for all other purposes they had no choice but to use water from the drain.

I met a group of men and teenaged boys all employed as sanitation workers by contractors. Their jobs, they said, entailed cleaning the city’s community latrines early every morning, and also sweeping the streets of human and animal faeces. When any of the city’s numerous stray dogs or cows died, the work of disposing of the carcasses was left to them too. The tools they used were the same ones that I saw sanitary workers use in Ahmedabad.

On top of all this, they were called upon to dive into and unclog any choked sewers. One of the men, Shyamhari Choudhary, described how the only precaution they could take was to rub their bodies with mustard oil before diving in, to keep sewage from sticking to them. If workers ever demanded any equipment, he said, “the contractor will abuse us and fire us immediately.”

The only clear change in the life of the settlement since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, Choudhary told me, was that the incidence of malaria and dengue had gone up here since a trash-processing project was built in the vicinity as part of the campaign. One man agreed to take me to see it, and a young boy decided to come along too.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, settlements of up to 500 households can receive up to Rs 20 lakh from the central government to finance facilities for treating “solid waste”—that is, garbage—including plants that can generate energy from refuse. For large cities, the central government offers to provide 35 percent of the funds to construct such facilities.

The plant stood right at the edge of the Dom settlement. We approached it across a large compound with dry garbage piled to one side and wet sludge dumped on the other. A path in between led to a machine the size of several double-decker buses. One man sat in a chair beside it, and another was working on a computer nearby. Everything stood under the open sky.

I approached one of the seated men, and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. He stood up and told me to follow him, then turned to my companions and told them sternly to stay where they were.

I met the plant supervisor on the other side of the machine. He refused to give me his name, but agreed to describe how the plant worked. The plant receives around 10 tonnes of unsegregated garbage every day, he said. This is segregated, and the organic waste is fed into the machine, which composts it and produces biogas. The biogas is then used to generate electricity—the plant has a generation capacity of 45 kilowatts, the supervisor said—which is supplied to the city. He explained that “inorganic waste has no use for us,” and so is sent away to be dumped.

In January 2016, the central government made it mandatory for power-distribution companies to buy all the power generated by waste-to-energy plants. The government has also set a fixed rate for the purchase of this power. At a conference held this February, Goutham Reddy, the head of a major waste-management firm owned by the Ramky Group, lauded that decision. But he added that there was still no set pricing for the purchase of power generated by various types of waste-to-energy plants—such as “refuse-derived fuel” plants that use all combustible waste as fuel—and that waste-to-energy plants were still often not commercially viable. In his view, Indian solid-waste management facilities were struggling, and the sector needed help to raise more capital and bring in new technology.

In March, the ministry of urban development tweeted that “close to 60 waste to energy plants are under construction across 23 states as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission.” The website of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban does not have any data on the number of such plants in operation or under construction, or on how much of India’s trash is processed to produce energy. I asked the ministry of urban development for this information under the RTI act, but was turned away. The ministry wrote, “You have sought detailed information on various issues and aspects of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) which requires to be compiled from various sources and authorities, including all the state mission director of SBM and municipalities all over the country, which is not desirable under the RTI Act.” The Central Information Commission has in the past ruled that this does not constitute a valid reason for dismissing an RTI request.

However many solid-waste-management facilities India may have, it is safe to say that, at present, they do not have anywhere near the capacity to handle all the garbage the country produces. According to data from the ministry of the environment, in the 2014–2015 financial year India’s towns and cities produced 141,064 tonnes of trash every day, of which 90 percent “is reported to be collected” and just over a quarter is treated in some way. I sent queries to the ministry asking what shares of trash are treated in what ways, and what share ends up in landfills, but was told that it does not “compile the information as required through the RTI application.”

I saw the consequences of the country’s inability to process its trash most starkly in Ahmedabad. On the outskirts of the city, just off a major road heading south, is the Pirana dump, the main disposal site for Ahmedabad’s garbage. From more than a kilometre away, it rears up on the horizon, with the silhouette and dimensions of a mountain. According to information submitted to the Gujarat High Court, the dump site is spread over 84 hectares, of which at least 65 hectares have already been covered in trash—an area the size of roughly a hundred football pitches. Official figures from 2011 put the quantity of trash produced by Ahmedabad’s populace each day at 2,300 tonnes, of which only 400 tonnes were separated out and composted.

Right at the foot of the mountain of garbage is the Muslim ghetto of Bombay Hotel. The ghetto includes the settlement of Citizen Nagar, home to people permanently displaced by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat. On paper, Citizen Nagar simply does not exist. The state government refuses to recognise the existence of settlements of pogrom survivors, and insists that all of them have returned to their original homes.

The sanitation infrastructure at Bombay Hotel was no better than that at Millat Nagar. There is no water connection, and residents collect drinking water from a tanker. There are no sewage lines, and only a small number of insanitary latrines.

In one of the 40 one-room homes that make up Citizen Nagar, I met an elderly man named Mohammed Nizamuddin. The room had space for a bed, a bench, and little more, and Nizamuddin shared it with his wife, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. They had no latrine, and Nizamuddin said the family defecated on the dump. The air was filled with the smell of rotting garbage. Nearby, there were numerous large plants, several of them producing chemicals. Wafts of noxious fumes floated through. Nizamuddin’s seven-year-old granddaughter, Nikhat Bano, showed me some grainy red rashes on her face, and I was told that her parents had similar rashes too. Nizamuddin said that a doctor had told them that this was the consequence of chemical pollution. If he could have left this place, he said, he would have years ago, but he had nowhere else to go.

When I described what I saw at Bombay Hotel to Poonamchand Parmar, the head of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban in Gujarat, he told me the state government is planning to build solid-waste treatment plants that would improve conditions. His staff later gave me a data sheet which stated that Gujarat’s cities and towns generate 10,500 tonnes of trash each day. The document also stated that only seven cities or towns disposed of their trash in sanitary dump sites. It added that five major waste-to-energy projects in the state were at various stages of preparation. At present, according to this document, Gujarat does not have a single waste-to-energy plant.

This is an extract from our May 2017 cover story, “Down the Drain: How the Swachh Bharat Mission Is Heading For Failure,” by Sagar. Read the full story here

Sagar is a web reporter at The Caravan.

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