In his father's house at Rajkot, a mehtar called Uka did the scavenging. If Gandhi ever touched Uka, Putlibai asked him to take a bath. Gandhi, otherwise a docile, obedient son, did not like it. The 12 years old son would argue with his mother; "Uka serves us by cleaning dirt and filth, how can his touch pollute me? I shall not disobey you, but the ramayana says that Rama embraced Guhaka a chandal. The Ramayana cannot mislead us." Putlibai could find no answer for this arguments.
Gandhi learnt scavenging in South Africa. His friends there
lovingly called him the great scavenger. After three year's stay there, he came
to India to take his wife and sons to South Africa. At that time plague had
broken out in the Bombay Presidency. There was a chance of its spreading to
Rajkot. Gandhi immediately offered his service for improving the sanitation of
Rajkot. He inspected every home and stressed the need of keeping the latrines
clean. The dark, filthy, stinking pits infested with vermin horrified him. In
some houses belonging to the upper class, gutters were used as a privy and
stench was unbearable. The residents were apathetic. Poor untouchables lived in
cleaner homes and responded to Gandhi's pleadings. Gandhi suggested the use of
two separate buckets for urine and night-soil and that improved the sanitation.
The Gandhi family was well known in Rajkot. His father and
grandfather served long as dewans in Rajkot and other neighboring states. About
70 years ago, the Prime Minister's barrister so needed guts to go round the home
town and make a house to house inspection of the drains. a Gandhi seldom filed
to show moral courage in the hour of need. He criticized many western customs
but repeatedly admitted that he learnt sanitation from the west. He wanted to
introduce that type of cleanliness in India
On his second trip to India from South Africa, Gandhi attended
the Congress session in Calcutta. He came to plead because of the ill-treated
Indians in South Africa The sanitary condition of the Congress camp was
horrible. Some delegates used the verandah in front of their room as latrines,
others did not object to it. Gandhi reacted immediately. When he spoke to the
volunteers, they said; " This is not our job, this is a sweeper's job." Gandhi
asked the broom and cleaned the filth. He was then dressed in western style. the
volunteers were astonished but none came forward to assist him. Years later,
when Gandhi became the guiding star of the Indian National Congress, volunteers
formed a bhangi squad in the Congress camps. Once the brahmins only worked as
bhangis. Two thousand teachers and students were specially trained for doing
scavenging at the Haripura Congress. Gandhi could not think of having a set of
people labeled as untouchables for cleaning filth and dirt. He wanted to abolish
untouchability from India.
In South Africa the whites despised the Indians for their
slovenly habits. Gandhi inspected their quarters and asked them to keep their
homes and surroundings clean. He spoke about it in public meetings and wrote in
newspapers. Gandhi's house in Durban was built in western fashion. The bathroom
had no outlet for water. Commodes and chamber-pot used by his clerks residing
with him. He compelled his wife Kasturba to do the same. He also taught his
young sons this work. Kasturba once made a wry face while carrying the
chamber-pot used by allow caste clerk. Gandhi rebuked her and told her to leave
the house if she wanted to observe caste bias. He was once socially boycotted by
his own sympathizers for admitting an untouchable couple in the Sabarmati
In a South African jail, Gandhi once volunteered to clean
water closets. Next time, sweeper's work was allocated to him by the jail
After twenty years stay in that alien land, Gandhi at 46
finally returned to India with his party. During his visit to Kumbh Mela at
Hardwar that year, he with his Phoenix boys served as bhangis in the mela. The
same year Gandhi visited the Servants of India Society's quarters at Poona. The
members of the small colony one morning saw him cleaning the latrines. They did
not like it. But Gandhi believed that work of this kind qualified one for Swaraj.
More than once he toured all over India. whenever he went, he found insanitation
in some form or other. The filth and stench of public urinal and latrines in
railway stations and in dharmashalas were awful. The roads use d by the poor
villagers and their bullocks were always ill-kept. He saw people taking a dip in
a sacred pond without caring to know how dirty that bathing place or the water
was. They them selves dirtied the river-banks. He was hurt to see the marbel
floor of Kashi Viswanath Temple set with stary silver coins that collected dirt
and wondered why most entrances to abodes of God were through narrow slippery
lanes. Gandhi deplored the passengers' habit of dirtying lanes. Gandhi deplored
the passengers' habit of dirtying the railway compartments and said that though
few could afford to sue shoes, it was unthinkable to walk barefoot in India. How
even in a city like Bombay, people walked about the streets under the fear of
being spat upon by the occupants of houses around.
In reply to municipal addressed, Gandhi often said; " I
congratulate you on your spacious roads, your splendid lighting and your
beautiful parks. But a municipality does not deserve to exist which does not
possess model closets and where streets and lanes are not kept clean all the
hours of the day and night . The greatest problem many municipalities have to
tackle is insanitation . Have you ever thought of the conditions in which the
To the people he said: " So long as you do not take the broom
and the bucket in your hands, you cannot make your towns and cities lean." When
he inspected a model school, he told the teachers: " You will make your
institution ideal, if besides giving the students literary education, you have
made finished cooks and sweepers of them." To the students his advice was: " If
you become your own scavengers, you will make your surroundings clean. It needs
no les courage to become an expert scavenger than to win a Victoria Cross."
The villagers near his ashram refused to cover excreta with
earth. They said: " Surely this is bhangi's work. It is sinful to look at faces,
more so to throw earth on them" Gandhi personally supervised the
scavenging work in villages. To set an example to them, he for some months,
himself used to go to the villages with bucket and broom. Friends and guests
went with him. They brought bucketfuls of dirt and stool and buried them in
All scavenging work in his ashram was done by the inmates.
Gandhi guided them. People of different races, religions and colors lived there.
No dirt could be found anywhere on the ashram ground. All
rubbish was buried in pits Peelings of vegetables and leaving s of food were
dumped in a separate manure pit. The night soil too was buried and later used as
good rich manure. Waste water was used for gardening. The farm was free from
flies and stink though there was no pucka drainage system. Gandhi and his
co-workers managed sweeper's work by turn. He introduced bucket-latrines and
bicameral trench latrines. To all visitors Gandhi showed this new innovation
with pride. Rich and poor, leaders and workers, Indians and foreigners all had
to use these latrines. This experiment slowly removed aversion for scavenging
from the minds of orthodox co-workers and women inmates of the ashram.
Whenever Gandhi got an opportunity of doing a little bit of
cleaning work, he felt happy. To him the test of a people's knowledge of
cleanliness was the condition of their latrines. at 76, with pride he said: "
They privy I use is spotlessly clean without a trace of smell . I clean it
myself." On many occasions , he described himself as a bhangi and said he would
be content if he could die as a sweeper. He even asked orthodox Hindus to make
him suffer social boycott along with the untouchables.
He visited bhangi quarters and the bhangis always narrated
their tale of woe to him. He assured them that there was no disgrace in doing
their job and advised them to give up drinking liquors and eating flesh of dead
animals. He never supported a sweepers' strike and believed a bhangi should not
give up his work even for a day.
In Harijan he defined what an ideal bhangis: " He should know
how the right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it.
He should know how to overcome and destroy the odour of excreta and the various
disinfectants to render them innocuous. He should likewise know the process of
converting night soil and urine into manure." Instead of allowing scavenging to
continue as a forced hired labour, Gandhi wanted to lift it to the level of
indispensable social work.
During his khadi tour, the sweepers once were not permitted to
attend a public meeting where Gandhi was to speak. When Gandhi came to know of
it, he told the organisers: " You may keep back your purse and your addresses. I
am going to have a meeting with the untouchables only. Let all others who want ,
Two years before his death, Gandhi stayed some days in the
sweepers' colony in Bombay and Delhi. He wished to share the same lodging and
partake of their food but then he was too old for the experiment. Moreover some
special privileges were forced on the Mahatma.
Gandhi once went to Simla to have an important meeting with
the Viceroy. He sent one leading co-worker to see the bhangi quarters there.
When he was told that they have reduced the bhangis to the level of beasts. They
earn a few coppers but only at the expense of their human dignity. Look at a
bhangi as he eats his surrounded by filth. It is enough to break one's heart."
The sight of a bhangi carrying the night-soil basket on his
head made him sick. He explained how with the use of proper instruments,
cleaning could be done neatly. Scavenging was a fine art and he did it without
becoming filthy himself.
Once a foreigner asked Gandhi: "If you are made the Viceroy of
India for a day, what will you do?"
Gandhi said: "I shall clean the Augean stables of the
scavengers near the viceroy's house."
" Supposing your term is extended a day more, then?'
" The very same work shall I do the next day."