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Costs of Cleanliness.

Abstract: The following is an eyewitness account, and the musings that follow, of two little girls sweeping the roof of a primary school in Agra named B.S. Public Primary School located at Shamshabad Road. (Note: This is a citizen's account with some questions that need to be asked.)

Monday, 18th Feb 2015. B.S. Public Primary School, Shamshabad Road, Agra. (Photo courtesy: self)



In a society where intellectual discussions are dominated by statistics and quantifiable scenarios, witnessing two children (both girls) sweeping the roof of a public primary school located in a not so well off area strikes one with a strange helplessness of not being able to communicate the gross injustice inherent in the scenario. It is a fundamental problem with highlighting the social injustices that without witnessing and recording them they do not become part of the social statistics and the reporting of these incidents there is very less of. On the other hand isolated incidents when reported in newspapers or social media many a times give the readers, the intended witnesses of social injustices, an opportunity to rationalize the issue based on contingencies of that particular case. Those who are not affected by the implications of socio-political or socio-economic injustices in its gravest forms often take these opportunities readily to either assuage their guilt or evade any charges of culpability in a direct or indirect capacity.

On Monday morning around 8’o clock two girls dressed in school uniform were busy sweeping the roof of a primary school located on Shamshabad Road in Agra district for a good half an hour approximately. Meanwhile other children also dressed in school uniforms kept coming and leaving the roof, standing for a while or just loitering around. Seeing these two little girls sweeping the floor should immediately raise in one's mind questions of dignity, equality, justice and rights.

Caste

The playground was way larger than my small physique could handle and in cleaning it, my back began to ache. My face was covered with dust. Dust had gone inside my mouth. The other children in my class were studying and I was sweeping… I swept the whole day,… From the doors and windows of the school rooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle.” (From CBSE  class 7 political science textbook).  

This is what Omprakash Valmiki narrates in his autobiography titled “Jhoothan” relating his childhood experience when he was forced to sweep the school playground where he had gone in hopes of getting an education. We may say that cleanliness is next to godliness but in Indian society ironically cleaning is intrinsically bound with humiliation and indignity. 
In an unrelated yet similar incident when a young child of a couple who are both sweepers by occupation (almost non-coincidentally belonging to lower caste), working in the suburban residential colonies of Baruali Aheer block in Agra district, wished to study he was denied a place on the roof with the other kids where the teacher was taking the class. Thusly humiliated, the kid gave up on education and took up his familial occupation of sweeping and cleaning. It was only when he took up a cleaning job in a school, that his adolescent mind yet again got attracted to education feeling inspired from his fellow pre-teens in the school. Today belatedly he aspires to pass his class ninth examination, thanks to his own income with which he supports his education and a teacher who has agreed to give him private tuitions after his working hours. Sadly his parents do not know if he is still continuing with his studies since they work the whole day and hardly get a chance to talk to their child about his life and future.

Very few people may venture out to find similar stories as above in their own neighbourhood and yet they exist without fail in every nook and corner of our society. However for most of the affluent educated Indian upper and middle class cleanliness campaign simply means cleaning the filth from the posh areas, ignoring the ideological kind. Sadly there won't be any statistics available as to how many kids, based on their castes, are asked to sweep their schools or disallowed to sit with their classmates, but if these heart wrenching narratives are anything to go by one can't help wonder if caste had a role to play in those two little girls sweeping the roof as well. 

Gender

Double jeopardy is a procedural defence in law where a defendant cannot be tried for the same crime more than once. In a heavily discrimination-rid society like ours to not be born privileged is a crime. Moreover these criminals also do not have the privilege of double jeopardy as a defence. Being born a lower caste or worse a Dalit and then a girl too is the same crime committed twice. Those two girls may not even be from lower caste and yet have a very good chance to be told to sweep the roof (the fact that this likelihood increases multiply when you are from lower caste is another consideration). After all this is the age old celebrated role of a woman as the homemaker and the caretaker. It is only ironical that the broom is a symbol of a party representing the “common man” when broom almost invariably is always found in the hands of the Indian common woman.

Class

One may ask why this diatribe for a simple act of sweeping a roof. Here class becomes an important factor. The apathy of middle class and upper class in India to what lower classes go through every day for bare survival, let alone affording the luxuries of education and ambition, is extremely shocking and a big hindrance in building of a popular consensus in favour of rights of the poor and social welfare policies. But leaving the big picture aside, let us wonder if sweeping in school could be easily ignored if a child from a non-lower class or non-poor family was asked to do it. For children from well off sections of society not doing the homework or getting a bad grade or bad marks or simply not getting selected for being the monitor of the class may be the worst ordeals that they could face. But imagine feeling the humiliation of being the only student asked to sweep in school or sit separately from one’s colleagues just because you belong to a particular section of the society and it will become easy to understand why seeing a child sweeping in a school is so disturbing.

The two girls sweeping the roof of the school the other day in broad daylight is a symbol of middle class’s apathy to social reality of the country. They may be excited about a cleanliness campaign but what they should be disturbed about is the “costs of cleanliness”.  

-Sumit Chaturvedi





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