In 1932 Mahatma Gandhi, as a political prisoner in the Yeravada prison, carried out an epic seven day fast to protest the British government’s plan to establish separate electorates for touchable and untouchable castes. Winning the battle against this policy on September 26, Gandhi, in a statement to the press, made it clear that though his fast was only against separate electorates, he would resume it if the eradication of untouchability was not relentlessly pursued and achieved within a reasonable period of time. Gandhiji said, “Untouchability is repugnant to reason and to the instinct of mercy, pity, and love. No man can consider another man inferior to himself. He must consider every man as his blood brother. It is the cardinal principle of every religion”(Speeches and Writing of Mahatma Gandhi: p.930). Based on these principles the non-governmental organization Harijan Sevak Sangh (“servants of the Harijans”) came into existence in the same year to fulfill Gandhi’s goal of securing for the untouchables, called Harijans or “people of God” by Gandhi, a status of full equality in all fields with other Hindus. The Central Board of Harijan Sevak Sangh asked the provincial branches to undertake programmes in 1) educating and canvassing opinion among caste-Hindus in favour of complete removal of untouchability in all its forms through exhibitions, town meetings, literature dispersal etc. and 2) constructive work to benefit the Harijans, such as building schools, providing housing, giving access to safe water, ensuring entrance into all temples, and collecting donations.

 

 

In 1956 the Central Board took up the question of those Harijans, known as scavengers or bhangis, who were engaged for generations in the task of removing night soil (feces) from the old-style basket-type (dry) latrines, and who were therefore looked down upon even by other Harijans. Gandhiji was very concerned with the suffering of these people because he felt that though they were considered to be at the bottom of society, they performed the most important tasks of maintaining community sanitation and health. “He is the social leper shunned by all, yet he belongs to the one group more indispensable than any other for the sanitary well-being of society, and therefore, its very physical existence”(Young India: Nov. 5, 1925). The bhangis were made to use their hands to clean and carry feces containing baskets without any sort of protection from the parasites and bacteria. Not only is this job demeaning, but it is also highly dangerous. In order to liberate the scavengers from this kind of work, Harijan Sevak Sangh established Safai Vidyalaya (“sanitation institute”) in 1963 at the Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat under the auspices of Shri Parikshitlal Majmudar. In 1964 Shri Ishwarbhai Patel assumed the position of Principle and has been occupying that position ever since. The three primary objectives of Safai Vidyalaya are:

  • Removal of untouchability and backwardness
  • Upliftment of sweepers and scavengers
  • Upgradation of rural and urban health and sanitation
 

In 1969, the state enacted the laws of Bhangi Mukti (“scavenger liberation”) and Bhangi Kashta Mukti (“liberation of the pain of scavengers”). Bhangi Kashta Mukti addressed the problems of cleaning dry latrines and advocated the use of gloves, brooms, wheelbarrows, hand-washing etc. to prevent the spread of disease among scavengers. Bhangi Mukti addressed the problem of dry latrines themselves, and advocated their conversion to wet/flush latrines, thereby not requiring the removal of night soil from the latrine. Hence, each household would be able to clean their latrine by themselves and the need of scavengers would be eliminated. The government of Gujarat appointed Shri Ishwarbhai Patel as the Advisor of the Bhangi Mukti & Bhangi Kashta Mutki Programmes, thereby establishing Safai Vidyalaya as a main agency in their implementation. In addition, the Social Welfare Department of Gujarat thought it appropriate to train scavengers, engineers, sanitary inspectors, chief officers, safai karmacharies working in Municipalities, Corporations and Nagar Panchayats and entrusted training responsibility to Safai Vidyalaya, providing a government sanctioned grant for training programmes. Thus Safai Vidyalaya earned a prominent name as a training institute.
As the success of the conversion of dry latrines as well as the training programs of Safai Vidyalaya progressed, more and more demand for training from various agencies such as the central government of India, the World Bank, UNICEF, WHO etc. was growing. In response, the institute added the Environmental Sanitation Institute (ESI) in 1985 to take on more complex and nationwide projects. ESI’s mission is to promote activities in rural and urban areas for health, sanitation and the environment with the help of individuals’ and NGOs’ participation. ESI has developed many successful projects, educational programs, and cost effective sanitation units that serve as a model for Indian as well as international institutes.

   
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