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 Chamanpura, a 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.