‘Sweep’ Under The Rug Much? How We Ignore The Reality Of Who Cleans India

by | Mar 25, 2022

Rehabilitated manual scavenger, Maya Sangeliya, 45, looks on inside her house. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

I was brought up with the belief that cleanliness is next to godliness. I can’t recall if anyone ever used that phrase verbatim, but it was very much reflected in the dos and don’ts I learned, both consciously and unconsciously. I hated using dirty public toilets, often heard comments about how unhygienic the poor were, stared in shock at all the people defecating in the open near railway tracks whenever I travelled by train.

Sanitation was linked to morality.

Of course, this narrow and unempathetic thinking only betrays my upper-caste, middle-class and urban upbringing. I was told that cleanliness was only a question of habit and effort–good people are clean, live in clean homes and keep their cities clean. Cleanliness was defanged, depoliticised and a question of individual choice alone. Then, in 2014, one event triggered the evolution of a different point of view.

On October 2, PM Modi announced the Swachh Bharat Mission to ‘clean India’ by 2019. Pictures of celebrities holding jhaadus sprung up on the internet and soon enough, there were self-congratulatory social media posts by extended family, acquaintances and friends detailing their trysts with tackling problems of urban sanitation. The slightly sweaty yet glamorous-looking celebrities posed for these photo ops, and well-meaning citizens followed suit–but for all of one day, sporadic and quickly forgotten.

And I found myself asking: who really cleans, though?

Overwhelmingly, it is women.

In 2019, the National Statistical Office (NSO) conducted its first-ever time use survey which measured the amount of time Indians spent on various activities like paid work, socialising, and volunteering. The findings are definitive: a majority of women in rural and urban India engage in unpaid domestic and caregiving work, spending on average 2.5 times the minutes per day on these activities than men.

Cleaning involves sweeping, mopping, dusting, doing dishes and clearing garbage, of course. But it also includes, for so many in India, fetching water from hand pumps, rivers and wells. Women’s care-taking work is rooted in their role as guardians of a household’s hygiene and health.

Cleanliness Is Also The Language Of Caste

The caste system is a system of social stratification based on ideas of purity and pollution. Historically, lower castes were relegated to working with waste, and that division of labour continues. If the woman of the house does not perform domestic labour herself, then she is responsible for managing its outsourcing–by hiring domestic workers.

Unofficial estimates say that nearly 50 million people, majorly women and girls, work as domestic workers in India. They are often marginalised, with little to no literacy, belonging to lower castes and poor. Without proper protection from labour laws and the heightened dependence on their employers, they become even more vulnerable.

Cleanliness has a human cost

When I worked with a domestic workers’ union in Hyderabad, I heard horror stories of domestic workers who suffered chronic infections on their hands and feet because of cheap detergents or dishwashing soaps; extended hours of physical labour for measly pay; instances of sexual harassment they faced from male employers.

Caste hierarchies exist amongst them as well: your caste position determines whether you cook and do dishes for a family or clean their toilets. These gendered and caste dynamics extend to the maintenance of cleanliness in public spaces as well. More than 50% of India’s 5+ million urban sanitation workers are women.

Women are significant contributors in the waste management value chain–they work informally as waste pickers and sorters at dumpsites and landfills or assist the men in the family who collect recyclables, manage junk shops or do scrap-dealing. 95 to 98% of India’s 1.2 million manual scavengers are Dalit women, cleaning public toilets, sewage lines and septic tanks, doing inhumane work in inhumane conditions, heavily marginalised in society.

Men continue to be preferred employees in the formal waste management system, which affords them, at the least, visibility. They are on municipalities’ payrolls or on contractors’. You will rarely see women in decision-making and leadership roles higher up in the value chain. A Bangalore-based NGO, Hasiru Dala, said they found no women in the city working as itinerant buyers or scrap dealers, and that aggregators or processors were all registered in the name of men.

It is impossible to deny that cleanliness is important. It is even recognised as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Poor sanitation and hygiene is linked to everything from diseases and lowered productivity to environmental damage, wiping out $106.7 billion from India’s GDP in 2015 alone. The challenge lies in perceiving cleanliness as an individual choice. One’s ‘godliness’ is, often, strongly dependent on the labour of others.

Perhaps what we need to stop sweeping under the rug are the specific experiences and challenges of the people behind the cleanliness that we chase after. Recognising that cleanliness is a social issue also necessarily needs us to use a gendered lens in our policy frameworks, implementation plans or data collection.

global review found that only 17% of solid waste management and recycling documents included gender as a key aspect of analysis. To fail to recognise that gender plays a key role in the sanitation value chain is to make women’s specific lived realities invisible and more tragically, fail to create innovative solutions that centre an already marginalised section of society.

This article was originally published on Youth Ki Awaaz as a part of the Justice-Makers’ Writer’s Training Program.

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