Lenin Raghuvanshi: Modi’s hypocrisy vis-à-vis Dalits who die in the sewers

In Varanasi two Dalits die. The prime minister pulls a stunt washing the feet of manual sanitation workers. He "is not interested in these deaths, because the waste is collected by untouchables."

Varanasi (AsiaNews) – Two Dalit men died asphyxiated last week in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) whilst cleaning the sewers ahead of an election rally by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi next Friday. Manual waste collection is traditionally reserved for Dalits, the most discriminated community in India.

"This is Modi’s hypocrisy, leaving manual waste collectors to die” in Varanasi, said Lenin Raghuvanshi, a Dalit rights activist and executive director of the Peoples' Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), speaking to AsiaNews.

The prime minister “does nothing to improve the living conditions of the Dalit community. He only invests in the economy, and not to free the untouchables from caste discrimination."

The victims were Rajesh Paswan, originally from Motihari (Bihar), and Chandan, a resident of Shivpur district. The incident in which they lost their life occurred last Thursday near Kali Mandir, in the Pandeypur area.

"The two entered a sewer line that was chocked,” Raghuvanshi said. “At one point, another pipe started leaking and the wall of the chamber slipped and they were trapped inside. They died suffocated. They rescued the dead bodies only after eight hours”

The activist noted that “no one was there to help them. There should be a backup system, so that when two or three people are inside, some help is available to them.”

Varanasi is the prime minister's constituency and a large number of supporters are expected at the rally.

For Raghuvanshi, the prime minister behaves in a contradictory manner. Just a week ago, media showed him washing the feet of some sanitation workers. For India, where those once referred to as pariahs remain excluded, the gesture had great resonance.

Human rights activists complain, however, that "feet washing" was rather a political stunt ahead of the election.

In fact, the place where it was done was not random. It was during the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, with thousands of propaganda posters with the picture of the prime minister dotting the site.

After immersing himself in the waters of the Ganges, Modi squatted in front of some sanitation workers (safai karamchari) to wash their feet.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan group, which is opposed to manual waste collection, reports that "105 workers were killed in sewers and septic tanks in 2018 alone. In 2019, 13 workers have died."

The real issue, for its president, Bezwada Wilson, "is no longer about equipment or safety gear”. Instead, “what we want is that no human being should be allowed to enter sewer lines and septic tanks."

For Raghuvanshi, "The prime minister is not interested in these deaths, because the waste is collected by untouchables."