It was a warm summer’s morning last week in teeming old Faridabad, a chaotic, industrial town where nearly half the people live in slums. Praveen Kumar was talking to students at a government girls’ senior secondary school. They complained about the broken fans, and they told him how there was just one sweeper to clean the stinky toilet.
A lean, graying man with a receding hairline and neatly trimmed moustache, 51-year-old Kumar heard them out and said he would return. He went home and picked up a bucket and a broom. “Where are you going with those?” his puzzled wife asked. “Don’t lose them.”
A homeopathy doctor by training, Kumar is an officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). What he then did is a good example of how a few, committed bureaucrats keep intact this great but rapidly corroding steel frame of the nation.
Kumar went back to the school that hot, summer afternoon, lugging his bucket and broom. As astonished students and staff watched, he swirled cleaning liquid and water into the Indian-style squat toilet. After 20 vigorous minutes, the toilet was clean.
A man cleaning a toilet is, in itself, not an unusual event. But if that man is the deputy commissioner of a town in a country acutely conscious of hierarchy, status and roles, it must cause a kerfuffle.
So it did.
“We could not believe that the deputy commissioner cleaned the toilet of our school,” principal Praveen Kaushik told my colleague Prabhu Razdan. Kumar has gained something of a reputation in Faridabad for being a maverick, a non-comformist, the odd one out, says Razdan. In the best ideals of public service, he answers his cellphone at any hour and does not mind getting down and dirty on the job, whether wading in to rescue people from a collapsed building or hanging out with slum dwellers to understand their problems. This hands-on approach to governance understandably vexes many colleagues who do not share his enthusiasm.
Kumar’s toilet-training act is now being extolled in Faridabad school assemblies, where students are encouraged to do more for themselves and their campuses. Rajeev Arora, the district education officer, said that Kumar’s 20 minutes with water and broom should inspire teachers and more than 150,000 students in 384 Faridabad schools.
There are elements of this story that are equally heartening and depressing.
It is wonderful, of course, that Kumar did what he did. There are more like him than we realise in public service but nowhere near enough. Too many public servants — in case we forget, that is what bureaucrats are — believe their position confers on them a status higher than those they serve.
It is also disquieting, in a sense, that Kumar had to clean the toilet. His actions indicate the rot in India’s flailing state, revealing its inability to provide and maintain basic infrastructure like sanitation.
What is most depressing is that most Indians still find many menial jobs beneath their dignity. Cleaning a toilet tops the list, even though Mahatma Gandhi once said the ability to clean a toilet was the key to revolutionising India. Narayan Desai, son of Gandhi’s personal secretary and biographer, narrates how toilet cleaning was the great soul’s initiation for those who wanted to stay in his ashram, especially a Brahmin. “This person had to pass through an inner struggle,” writes Desai. “because for thousands of years his community would never have done such a thing.”
Despite Gandhi’s effort, Indian attitudes haven’t changed significantly. Very few Indians would deign to clean a toilet, and we are dismissive of those who do. Why else would the distasteful practice of manual scavenging be allowed to continue? In case you are unclear about this neat term, it means carrying someone else’s shit in a basket on your head. More than half a million Indians still make a living clearing human excreta — delicately called ‘nightsoil’ — from dry latrines. Though the practice was outlawed 17 years ago, no one has ever been punished, and no one really cared until the National Advisory Council pushed the government to do something.
In January, representatives of 11 state governments and three Union government ministries evolved a plan to end scavenging by building more flush toilets and rehabilitating scavengers. Earlier this month, the Centre reiterated that manual scavenging is a criminal offence and five years in jail can result for those who “violate the dignity of a member of scheduled caste/scheduled tribe”. As you may have guessed, scavenging is the preserve of the lowest castes.
Actions like Kumar’s are important because they show young India that cleaning a toilet is not just the right thing to do in modern, democratic India but it also teaches you self-reliance and creative thinking. Think I am joking? Try understanding why that ring in the toilet bowl is so hard to remove (Hint: those fancy brushes don’t work).
No, I am not a Gandhian, I am not a pacifist, I will eat any or all of God’s creatures, you get the picture. But my mother had taught me how to clean a toilet, and when I left home, I found it distasteful that someone should have to clean up after me. It is now a habit, as easy as brushing my teeth or eating.
If you can’t clean your toilet, maybe it is time you learned. Then follow Kumar and show India how.