The images I have used in this article are real. I accept the fact that they are nauseating. If you too, feel so, then I have made my point. Manual scavenging is in vogue not only in India but is rampant all over South Asia. For us Asians, this is life. We have to live with it.
It was a hot afternoon. I was waiting for the bus in Kodambakkam – the home of Kollywood in Chennai. Like others, I too pressed my handkerchief to my face to ward off the stench emanating from the heap of reeking night soil lying nearby.
Then I saw this old man around 70, with only a loin cloth to cover his body, his right hand groping into the clogged drain of a septic tank.
My heart bled for him. I drew out a ten rupee note from my shirt pocket and stretched it towards him.
He looked up at me. His face glowed with anger. He murmured a few loathsome phrases from his gutter language. Clenching his fist, he shouted, “Hey man, who did you think I am? I’m not a beggar!”
Before I could apologize, the old man started ranting: “Sir, I am an honest man. I am old, and I don’t know when I was born. Sir, I do an honest job. My work is clean. My father too was a scavenger. I don’t remember doing any other work. I have three girls and one boy. Two girls are married, the third is a widow, and she lives with us. The boy is a useless fellow. He steals at home and loafs around with his good-for-nothing friends. I don’t know how; he sniffs my liquor wherever I hide it. I had an eye operation only two weeks ago. If I sit at home, who will feed my wife, daughter and son?”
This is only one story of the terrible plight of a manual scavenger in Chennai.
This made me think of the caste system in India. While there are just four main castes, and more than 20,000 sub-castes. Then what about the sub-sub-castes, clans, and a multitude of other mutations?
Here is another story of the terrible plight of manual scavengers in Pandharpur, Maharashtra.
Gurunath works all day midst the extremely unbearable stench of night soil. He often stays dead drunk to do his work. At times he finds it difficult to eat when he thinks about the human waste he has wallowed in. He has asthma. Many of these cleaners succumb to asthma and the life expectancy of many in their community is just 30 years.
In Punjab, men – particularly from the Chuhar, Mehathar, Halalkhor, Lalbaghi, Bangi, Thotti and Jamadar lower castes – are commonly employed as manual scavengers and sewage cleaners. These caste subgroups are generally called Valmikis, and considered as the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.
Jaikumar, who runs a public primary school in Punjab, says, ” A lot of children in the school come from migrant families. Everyone thinks that Punjab is a prosperous state but the truth is that we have our own problems. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to have two meals a day and especially the dalits, the migrants and the people who are surviving on less than minimum wage … Members of my community are poor and there are high levels of illiteracy. They aren’t aware of the dangers attached to these jobs or of other opportunities available. It is crucial that they be educated about the risks involved. Only then will they be empowered to demand safety equipment and even an end to this practice all together.”
Here is a video made by Jaikumar that highlights the dangers of this work. This video shows two manual scavengers killed while working without any safety masks or gloves which necessarily have to be provided by the government.
In India 90-95 percent of people belonging to the scavenger communities engage in this abominable undignified work. The drains often contain abnormally high percentage of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide and other toxic gases. When cleaners are directly exposed to these gases they fall sick and even, as the above video shows, die immediately. But most manual cleaners do not know that on every waking day their lives are under threat.
Why should human beings, citizens of democratic India work day after day surrounded by the unbearable conditions and stench of human waste?
What happened to the 1993 law banning the practice?
- Is manual scavenging a result of India’s caste divide? (tvaraj.wordpress.com)
- Dalit Freedom Network (dalitnetwork.org)
- The ILO and Manual Scavengers in India: Paving the long way towards the elimination of discrimination based on social origin (ilo.org)
- List of Indian castes (en.wikipedia.org)
- Manual Scavengers in India (brightlivingblog.wordpress.com)