Union budget and the political economy of manual cleaning

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Religious fundamentalism and neoliberalism are inextricably linked – both ignore disadvantaged sections of society. This encourages Hindutva to move forward with more oppression. The recent announcement of Swachh Bharat 2.0 in the 2021 Union budget is flattering. How will the country strengthen ‘swachhata“Have closed your eyes to the plight of manual scavengers?”

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that more than 340 people died due to manual cleaning over the past five years, with Uttar Pradesh topping the list with 52 deaths. Manual cleaning shows no sign of stopping in urban India where some Dalit sub-castes like Valmikis and Alas are generally forced to engage in this inhuman labor due to poverty and other factors. A report found that 95% of manual garbage collectors are women who clean septic tanks, sewers and railroads without protective gear.

Caste: anathema

The caste system in the neoliberal era is nothing more than a division of labor which is not spontaneous, but historically conditioned. Brahminic hegemony compels the Dalits to perform the heinous task of cleaning up the human excrement that we throw down the toilet. State-sponsored caste oppression is portrayed as a low-wage occupation. The payment is so low that the workers cannot even meet their daily needs, including food. The state even offers new titles like ‘Safai Karmachari ‘ and ‘swasthya kamgar’. It’s just to glorify their roles and allow them to escape the harsh realities they face. Social discrimination, caste prejudices and financial shortcomings force them to choose the same profession, generation after generation.

Neoliberal Hindutva and manual cleaning

Manual cleaning has been banned since 1993 and the benchmark “The ban on employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation law” was applied in 2013. This law stipulates that the engagement of a nobody as a manual scavenger is a punishable offense. However, no conviction has been handed down to date, indicating the presence of numerous loopholes. The private sector also takes advantage of this situation to contract Dalit workers and pay them lower wages. This ultimately forces them to do the job with the greatest risk of occupational illnesses.

While at Kumbh Mela in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five manual garbage collectors, including two workers. He had thanked them for their karma yog and even when he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi called the work of sanitation workers a “spiritual experience”. However, have these concerns been reflected in the budget?

Laxity on the Manual Scavenger Rehabilitation Self-Employment Program (SRMS) is a new normal. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a marked overall increase in funds for sanitation, but it remains insufficient. A total of Rs 100 crore has been allocated to the program, which is Rs 10 crore less than last year. No allowance was made for pre-kindergarten scholarships for children of manual scavengers, an amount which was Rs 25 crore the last time around.

It is the duty of the government, local self-government and the Ministry of Social Justice and Social Empowerment to intervene in this matter by making mechanized cleaning compulsory. Kerala and Hyderabad have taken a remarkable step forward by deploying the ‘Robot Bandicoot‘to rid people of this dangerous and highly reprehensible work.

The interests of the Hindutva regime lie in the ease of commercially motivated policies which exacerbate inequalities, professional subjugation and aggravate socio-economic problems. Technology-driven solutions don’t eliminate the hassle of manual cleaning unless you wipe out the caste.

When the pandemic wreaked havoc on the lives of millions of people, those 1.2 million “safai karamcharis” worked continuously, without personal protective equipment to prevent them from starving to death and for us to lead peaceful lives. Indian sanitation policy, “Swachh Bharat”, has done little to improve this community. Thus, a community-centered model should be formulated to improve the welfare of manual scavengers. The provision of capital grants and skills development are necessary to achieve long-term goals. Article 21 guarantees every citizen the right to live in dignity; it should not remain ornamental.

Caste is not a physical object like a brick wall or barbed wire line that prevents Hindus from mixing and therefore must be brought down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of mind.“- Dr BR Ambedkar

The writer is pursuing his master’s degree in economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Opinions are personal.


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