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HomeOpinionBy washing feet, PM Narendra Modi was honouring himself not safai karamcharis

By washing feet, PM Narendra Modi was honouring himself not safai karamcharis

Modi said the workers were leading the Swachh Bharat movement and yet celebrities and politicians continue to be the face of the mission.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently washed the feet of five sanitation workers or safai karamcharis to thank and ‘honour’ them. Modi later tweeted that he would ‘cherish’ the moment all his life.

The act was criticised by many, and rightfully so. Bezwada Wilson, national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, said: “Clean your mind not our feet, Mr. PM!” He also said that the entire process was humiliating.

Truth be told, Modi wasn’t really honouring the sanitation workers but himself for cleaning their feet.

The act of cleaning

Let’s analyse the footage.

Five sanitation workers are waiting when Modi walks in. Even before he sits, he gestures a woman to keep her feet on the tray. It reeks of impatience.

After washing her feet, Modi moves on to the second person. Since neither Modi nor his staff remove the unclean water on the tray, the woman awkwardly hangs her legs in the air, wondering where to put it down. The same thing happens with the second person.

Also, note how the workers sit on plastic chairs while Modi gets a cushioned wooden stool and utensils made of brass.

Also read: Want justice, not PM washing feet, say sewer cleaners at Jantar Mantar protest

Humiliation, not honour

Modi justified his act by saying he was honouring the workers for their ‘tireless’ contribution in keeping the Kumbh clean, and thereby helping in the Swachh Bharat drive.

“No one can know the labour they (safai karamcharis)have put in the Kumbh. Cleanliness has been the trademark of this Kumbh,” Modi said.

However, cleaning the feet of five sanitation workers does nothing for the community. It is actually humiliating because the Modi government has not made any policies to empower the people.

Washing the feet only further valourises the caste system. It justifies its existence. It upholds the work, but denies the workers their own identity. This has been a continuous problem in dealing with scavenging in India. The ‘scavenger’ is not discussed without the shit. Or in this video, without the uniform.

Narendra Modi has been consistent in his approach to sanitation workers and defining them through their work.

When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, he wrote that the work of scavenging was a “spiritual experience” for the Valmiki community. Thereby reducing the Valmiki community to their occupation and reinforcing the caste order.

While the upper castes get reservations, others have to make do their feet being washed or the assurance that their labour is spiritual.

Also read: The ‘c’ in Swachh Bharat is caste and Modi needs to address it

The ‘heroes’ of Swachh Bharat

PM Modi also said that the “safai karamcharis have taken the lead when it comes to realising the dream of a Swachh Bharat”.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s ambassadors have been actors, sportspeople, bureaucrats all along, and never the sanitation workers. The scheme became a photo-op moment for the powerful.

These were celebrities who don’t have time to clean their own house, forget public places and sewage.

When he came to power in 2014, Modi took to the streets with a broom and promised to achieve a clean India by 2 October 2019. The sanitation workers were out of focus then as well.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan didn’t free sanitation workers, rather they were now controlled by government supervisors. And most importantly, the programme re-enforced the age-old practice of making sanitation workers to go to each house and collect the garbage.

Sanitation workers and waste pickers don’t have scheduled work hours or weekly offs, it all depends on their companies or supervisors. Even though they are government workers, this is the only occupation that the government treats as a social service rather than work.

Since its social service, the government is not really bothered about the rights of the sanitation workers or even introducing machinery in this sector. Modi’s policies were never focused on uplifting sanitation workers.

Also read: Sewage worker deaths wouldn’t happen if India worked as hard on it as it did for polio

Other political parties

If the BJP has been casteist, other parties too have not been able to solve the problem.

The Congress has been the longest ruling party, but they hardly introduced reforms in sanitation. For example, although water closet was introduced in 19th century in India, the government continued to use dry latrines until its official ban in 1993. various studies argue it continues to this day. The party has, instead, focused on improving the living condition of the workers.

Their problem was the ‘scavengers’ and not the scavenging.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) supported mechanisation in Kerala, so that blockades could be removed in a manhole without people manually cleaning sewers.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, apart from providing a welfare board to sanitation workers, gave them 3 per cent exclusive reservation in Tamil Nadu. This enabled community members to voice their social economic problems in the mainstream and created many bureaucrats and professors.

But all these parties never really addressed the stigma associated with sanitation work.

Removing the stigma remains a distant dream and until then we have to make do with such photo-ops.

B. Ravichandran is the founder of Dalit Camera @dalitcamera 

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  1. Lol,. लेखक महोदय बहुत ही कुंठित मानसिकता से प्रेरित है ।
    अगर कर्मचारियों के पैर धोने से publicity मिलती तो दूसरे नेताओं ने कांग्रेस के वो भी तो कर सकते थे, लेकिन उन्हें लगता है कि सोनिया राहुल के तलवे चाट कर और देशद्रोही लोगो का साथ देकर publicity मिलेगी तो वो कर रहे है ।

    लेखक का यह लेख जो कि एक नकारात्मक सोच से परिपूर्ण है, ये भी तो एक publicity स्टंट ही है, वरना ऐसे लेखों से जनता का क्या भला ??

  2. He is the best actor India ever had. Chai wala, A saint who wandered Himalayas for wisdom, aggressive marketing magnet of India , Hitler of south asia, dedicated work horse of RSS, …. Many more roles are ahead.

    For real hindus like me, He is a ever a “Muyalagan” whom , Lord Shiva is crushing under his feet. He can’t be defeated but we can overcome him if we are alert.

  3. Height of hypocrisy. Rather than drama he should have done something to uplift the working conditions of these people.

  4. Thank you for the suggestions. There is a clear case of humility and humiliation or hypocrisy. Its as though beating wife at home and speaking feminism in public. With the given situation as an example will you still can’t find the problem with such an approach.

  5. Ravichandran seriously needs brain surgery. To put one into his empty head. Some people just cant understand humility, they only know the language of danda.

  6. Why sanitation workers were singled out for feet washing? Means they are a despicable lot, but Modi is so great that he has even washed the feet of the most despicable lot. Height of hypocrisy.

    • They were never singled out. rather they are the ones who hold the ideology of Hinduism strong and steady. Like the mahars, or paraiyars, or devendars or chamars, or ravidasias etc protest then the Hinduisms purity and pollution ideology scrambles. This means the caste system would get demolished. Its this everyone who upholds caste believes the scavengers are important for caste to survive.

      Author of the above article

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