Manual scavenging has been prohibited in India since 2013, yet one person dies every five days while cleaning sewers, according to data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (Sanitation Workers).

Recently, two laborers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home ground in Uttar Pradesh state, Varanasi’s Chowkighat area, suffocated to death while cleaning a sewage tank without any safety gear. Ironically, the tanks were being linked with the Dinapur sewage treatment plant, which Modi inaugurated two days later, on November 12. Modi has represented Varanasi parliamentary constituency since May 2014.

Even in the national capital territory, Delhi, 22 people have died over the course of two years while cleaning sewers, septic tanks and rainwater-harvesting pits.

Continuation of such inhumane practice under the prime minister’s nose is a blot on his pet scheme, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Initiative), launched on October 2, 2014, amid much fanfare.

Unfortunately, much like his other noble initiatives such as Make in India and Start-up India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has turned out to be a farce in his own constituency. “Nothing has changed in the four and half years of Modi government,” said Anil Maurya, head of the Jan Adhar Manch, which works for sanitation workers in Varanasi.

A nationwide survey conducted by the Urban Development Ministry this year ranks Varanasi 29th in cleanliness among 400-odd Indian cities. However, the ground reality is quite different.

Asia Times surveyed prominent areas of the city on November 23 and 24, during Dev Deepawali (Festival of Lights of the Gods), which attracts large number of tourists to Varanasi from across the world. The city was expected to put its best foot forward during the festival.

While roads around Lanka, Cantt station, Cantonment, Godowlia, Bhelupur, Nadesar, Durgakund, and Cantt were clean, garbage piles and open drains were a cause of worry. Interior areas of the city and ghats on the River Ganga (Ganges) were even worse.

Because of debris and road construction, Varanasi is ranked among the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

The river and ghats: cosmetic changes

The magnificent ghats along the Ganga form the core of Varanasi. Assi Ghat, the southernmost beach among 84 others, is full of sediment this year due to floods during the monsoon.

Govind Sharma, the co-founder of Subah-e-Banaras, which holds cultural programs at the ghat, said: “We get it leveled manually ahead of Dev Deepawali.”

Steel trash bins installed on ghats two years ago have now gone missing. While the assistant municipal commissioner of Varanasi, Ajay Kumar Singh, said rubbish bins were available at main ghats, senior journalist Harendra Shukla said, “They were removed during floods from most ghats but never put back. Even automated scavenger boats which collect flowers and other offerings from River Ganga operate only before a VIP visit.”

More than 100 bio-toilets were also put up at the ghats in 2014. But these are now either missing or defunct. On this the assistant municipal commissioner said, “Bio-toilets were not feasible as urine seeped out due to gravity. They were removed. Sulabh toilets [public toilets] near Assi and Scindia Ghats are available.”

People have accused the civic administration of a cover-up.

“The officials present a glossy picture of the city whenever the prime minister visits Varanasi rather than addressing the core issues,” said Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology and Banaras Hindu University and mahant (top priest) of Sankatmochan Temple.

“Varanasi generates 550 tons of solid waste and 330 million liters per day of sewage. We need a comprehensive plan to handle this massive work, not cosmetic surgery,” he said.

Open defecation free?

The Quality Council of India in a recent survey found the Varanasi city was “open defecation free.” However, a sweepers’ colony in Nakki Ghat continues to use the railway track for nature’s call.

“When we asked the civic body to construct toilets here, we were shown a 10-seater toilet complex along with the geo-tag constructed in 2016-17. No such toilet exists though,” Maurya alleged.

Who is responsible for garbage disposal?

The Varanasi Nagar Nigam (Municipal Corporation) has outsourced most of its waste-management work to private companies since 2016.

Delhi-based Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS) Environment manages garbage collection and street cleaning in 14 of Varanasi’s 90 wards. The company has won a separate contract to clean up the 83 ghats under the Namami Gange plan, an integrated conservation mission by the federal government.

Kiyana Solutions and Ecopal Services have taken up cleaning of the other wards. Ecopal’s contract has expired and fresh bids for 32 wards will be floated soon.

Contrarily, Singh blamed the locals, saying, “Cleanliness of 14 wards is outsourced to IL&FS while Kiyana takes care of 44 wards. [The other] 32 wards are under Nagar Nigam.

“All agencies are doing their best. Bins are being removed as garbage is often thrown outside the bin, making the area look ugly and stinky. Residents are supposed to keep garbage at home/shops to be collected by vans. A few private plots have turned into dumping grounds, but we can’t do much. Road construction work at Pandeypur Circle is in the pipeline.”

Bureaucracy, delays in payments

While people say money being spent is not being reflected on the ground, some contractors say their payments are not regular.

Corporator Minu Sharma said, “We are seeking funds from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme [MPLAD] to help address water and sewer issues of the area. No luck in four years. Municipal officials have also turned hostile since private firms are roped in.”

Maurya says the city needs nearly 25,000 sanitation workers. Only 5,000 are employed at present.

No survey has been conducted to assess the work of outsourced firms. Officials say the prime minister’s office directly monitors many programs for which fortnightly reports are sent from their end.

When Modi was elected from Varanasi, he promised to turn the city into a smart city like Kyoto. During a visit to Japan, he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the Kyoto-Varanasi Partner City Agreement. “Four years down the line, this ‘transformation’ remains a distant dream,” Professor Mishra said.