Last month, in a rare show of federal cooperation, the Delhi and the Central governments joined hands amidst much fanfare for the cleanliness drive publicised as the “Swachh Delhi Abhiyaan.” The flagship project was launched by the chief minister (CM) of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, on 16 November in the form of the Swachh Delhi Android app. The app encouraged users to photograph and upload pictures of garbage and debris that accumulated around the city. These geo-tagged photographs were then sent to the Department of Urban Development (DoUD) in the Delhi Secretariat. The department then sorted these images area-wise, identified them as either garbage or debris—the former being the responsibility of the Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and the latter, of the Public Works Department (PWD) under the Delhi government—and forwarded to the concerned agencies, who would then send the details to officials of the respective area, or ward. They would, in turn, arrange for workers to clear the garbage or debris.
Following the launch of the app, the centre allocated Rs 96.7 crore to the Delhi government for the initiative on 22 November. The goal was to resolve all the complaints received by 30 November. When the day approached, Sandeep Mishra, additional secretary at DoUD and the Swachh Delhi mission director, praised the positive response of the app, revealing that it had received over 42,000 complaints during its trial period, of which about 25,000 had been resolved and 6,000 were found to be junk. He went on to claim that the unattended complaints would soon be taken care of, and that the decision to continue the app system would be made after a formal review.
Over the course of my reporting—amid all the valid concerns of technical glitches, low redressal rate, structural problems, and the short-sightedness of the mission in terms of garbage disposal—I realised that one of the key failings of this process was not discussed at all. After talking to more than a dozen sanitation workers from the north and east corporations of the MCD, it became apparent that the plight of the men and women who actually do the cleaning has rarely been addressed.
On 27 November, Sanjay Gehlot led me to his tiny office, situated inside the complex of public toilets and washrooms, adjacent to the Ambedkar Institute of Technology at Geeta colony in east Delhi. Gehlot is the president of the Swatantra Mazdoor Vikas Sanyukt Morcha (SMVSM), an umbrella group of 28 unions, consisting of nearly all of the approximately 80,000 sanitation workers employed by the MCD. This year alone the SMVSM has gone on strike four times: in March (for a week), June (for 12 days), October (till Diwali in November), and now on 1 December when some of its members began a relay hunger strike at the Jantar Mantar.
During the next hour, over cups of tea and the pervading stench of ammonia, Gehlot and his companions, Prem Chand and Joginder Bahot—both class-four sanitation workers from the East Delhi Municipal Corporation—told me about the cleanliness woes of Delhi, and those of their own as foot soldiers of the MCD.