Mayawati’s rural cleanliness project bridges social divide

By Brij Khandelwal

Agra, Oct 3 (IANS) When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati launched a rural cleanliness scheme in 2008, not many realised the revolutionary potential of “this seemingly innocent and unattractive scheme” now being implemented all over the state.

More than 100,000 ’safai karamcharis’, or community sweepers, were recruited under the scheme, two for each village. “These young men and women from all castes, educated but without work, initially thought they would not have to do any work but would get paid. A large number paid hefty amounts to recruiting committees to get the jobs.

“What is happening now is that these people are being forced to work, clean up the villages, the choked drains. If someone is reluctant, the village pradhan can immediately stop payment of salary,” says village development functionary Subhash Jha working at the community development office (CDO) here.

In the 636 villages of Agra district, 996 people were recruited — 550 of them from the general category including Brahmins and Thakurs. A large number are young women from this city. Many have to go to the villages early in the morning.

“Lakshmi Kumari has given the impression to all in her locality she goes out teaching in a village school,” said Pratap Singh, a social activist of Dayalbagh area here. But once in the village, she has to pick up the broom and start cleaning the drains, while the villagers watch.

“In our village Akhwai, in Akola block, there is a youngster Neeraj Singh, son of Kadheru. He is a Jat who has completed school. Now he has to go to work in Kheria village. The villagers make sure he really cleans up the place,” Gandhian activist Chandraveer Singh told IANS.

“All these fellows thought it was a regular government job and they would get away without cleaning by bribing the village pradhans. But the villagers have become clever. Many derive sadistic pleasure by making them work, knowing some of them come from higher castes,” Chandraveer added.

In Agra district, at least 100 mostly upper caste cleaners are alleged to be working at the homes of district officials instead of where they are supposed to work. But the villagers know their whereabouts and make inquiries about them, Subhash said.

Madhu Devi, 35, goes from Agra city to work in Ghamauta village. Another cleaner called Lakhan Singh goes to work on a motorcycle, gets into his jeans and finishes off his cleaning assignment speedily to get back to the city. One cleaner Sunil is a Yadav, while Santosh Singh is a Lodhi, says Subhash.

They have to work in two shifts, one from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and the other from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. They cannot bunk as every day they have to report to the village pradhan who has been given the power to stop their salary.

“These fellows are getting something like Rs.9,000-10,000 a month as fourth class employees of the state. This is a pretty attractive package in the villages,” said local resident Bahadur Singh, president of the Gram Pradhans Association. A few months ago more than a dozen were suspended by the chief development officer for not doing their work satisfactorily.

Ravi Singh, environmentalist and progressive farmer of the Baruli Ahir block, told IANS: “On paper the scheme does have the potential of changing social equations in the countryside, but because of corruption the scheme was not being implemented fairly.

“My village has three safai mitras. In the village set-up there’s not much garbage like in the cities. All the dirt eventually gets mixed up with cow dung and becomes usable in the fields. They clean up the approach roads and pick up the garbage from visible areas.”

Ravi said the jobs should have gone to the really needy people and not to just anyone who applied.

Social activist Netra Pal Singh, working for the Agra unit of the All India Women’s Conference, points out: “It’s not easy in our social order to pick up the broom and start cleaning public roads in full view of the community. It does need lots of courage. Even if some people have managed to get into the government muster rolls by bribing officials, the community knows their new status of a safai karamchari and in our scheme of things who would be happy with this new tag?”

But others say Mayawati has taken a major leap by bulldozing caste prejudices.

In a February 2008 speech Mayawati had spelt out the contours of the scheme which was later modified to include other castes. She said: “My government has taken an unprecedented and historic decision to provide more than one lakh permanent government jobs in rural areas for the Valmiki community of Scheduled Castes.

“By this decision, all the 1.08 lakh revenue villages of Uttar Pradesh will have at least one safai karamchari, and the person appointed will be from the same village in most of the cases… This, besides meeting the employment problem, will also make a sea change in the health atmosphere of rural areas for it will ensure cleanliness and help eradicate diseases spreading due to unhygienic conditions.”

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at


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