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Carriers of the dregs of humanity

By Freny Manecksha

Scavenging, or lifting human excreta, is the only work available to many women of the Halalkhor and Dom communities of Mau in Uttar Pradesh. They occupy the lowest rung amongst people who must work at the very bottom of a caste-determined occupational order. They are exposed to health risks, education for their children is almost unheard of, the communities are socially isolated, and people have few chances of finding other work

When Fatima Kaneez's mother died it was a foregone conclusion in Nadwasarai village in Mau district of Uttar Pradesh that she would have to start doing what her mother and grandmother had done for many years: lift human excreta from dry latrines, using only a small broom and tin plate. Fatima, who is from a community of scavengers called Halalkhor, recalls: "The thought of such work was repulsive, but when I hesitated the villagers put pressure on me. They said my husband was unemployed, I had small children to support, and this was after all my family's hereditary occupation." In a perverse twist of logic, the villagers even argued that Fatima 's daughters' chances of marriage would be enhanced if she worked as a scavenger because this would imply that there was a steady flow of income into the household.

In Uttar Pradesh, according to the government's own estimate, about 40,000 manual scavengers still work in urban and rural areas. The Purvanchal Gramin Vikas Evam Prashikshan Sansthan (PGVS), an organisation working with dalits and the disadvantaged, places the figure at 60,000 -- 85% of whom are women.

One such woman is Suchitra, who like other Dom resides in a makeshift home of mud and scraps of plastic in the Munshipara mohalla of Mau town. Although some families have been living on this bit of government land for decades, they still have no access to a hand pump or drainage. Like the others, Suchitra walks to the railway station more than a kilometre away to get drinking water. The women are often employed on a daily wage to pick up human waste from along the railway tracks or to clean drains and stagnant tanks. Their monthly income ranges from Rs 1,800 to Rs 3,000.

In the monsoons, when work is scarce, they often take loans from the rich Mahajan community and become begaar (forced/unpaid) labourers. Suchitra is often summoned to Mahajan households to pick up and clean their pet dogs' excreta. She is paid Rs 10 per visit. Her name, like others from her community, figures on the voters' list but not on the BPL (below the poverty line) list. Her children do not go to school and cannot have the midday meal there. Her work leaves her and other scavengers prone to skin infections, respiratory ailments and gastro-intestinal diseases.

The scavenger communities of Mehtar, Bhangi, Lalbegi, Halalkhor, Dom and others stand at the very bottom of the social ladder. Hierarchical occupations and rigid caste rules with notions of 'purity' and 'pollution' continue to have such a pernicious grip in many parts of India that occupational mobility is nearly impossible for people from these communities.

In 1993 Parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Bill, but in the absence of any social and political willingness to implement the law, little has changed for the scavenging communities. In fact, while hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, the Supreme Court was informed that the number of manual scavengers had increased from 5.88 lakh in 1992 to 7.87 lakh in 2006 (report in Combat Law, volume 5, issue 4).

Martin Macwan of the Navsarjan Trust, an anti-scavenging group started in Gujarat in 1989 says: "The sheer volume of human waste in India is staggering, considering that 80% of the population has no access to sanitation. Every year you have more and more trains adding to this human waste." The Indian Railways, in response to a petition filed in the Supreme Court, has admitted that 30,000 coaches have open discharge toilets. New avenues for scavenging jobs also keep opening up, with more hospitals and testing laboratories being set up where people from scavenging communities are employed to handle stool and urine samples.

"In all these jobs," Macwan says, "the caste hierarchy is evident. The women scavengers enter first, then the other dalit sub-castes, the Muslims, and, finally, the Thakurs. Even today in Gujarat , if a new house is to be constructed any mason will fit the toilet in the house, but in a house where the toilet has been used only masons from the scavenging communities will do the work. This is the extent of caste dominance and exclusion of scavengers from other jobs."

Shamsunissa and a few others of the Halalkhor community live in the railway quarters of Mau. They pay about Rs 1,000 every month as rent. Shamsunissa's husband is a low-paid schoolteacher, and she too has to work to sustain her six children. She says she cleans toilets because she has no choice, because "people do not want us to do any other work". She leaves home at 7 am and works till 11 am, lifting human excreta from dry latrines, carrying it in a basket to the stinking dump yard. She makes the demeaning trip for about 25 homes and is paid Rs 20 per household, per month. Sometimes, she gets a 'bonus' of old or new clothes, once a year.

Farida Banu, who now works with the Garima Abhiyan, a resettlement programme for manual scavengers undertaken by the Purvanchal Rural Development and Training Institute (PRDTI) in the three blocks of Badrow, Kopaganj and Ratanpura (Ghazipur district), and aided by the Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme, remembers how they took and wore with pride any old clothes given by the wife of a doctor or an engineer: "We and our children never got the benefits of education but we clung to the hope that the clothes would give us some status."

Sayina has repeatedly asked the civic authorities for a job as a sweeper. Her anger is palpable when she says: "I am throwing their dirt because that is the only way I can earn something." She spends lavishly on paan -- it is the only way she can get rid of the foul odour that stays even after the work has been completed. Among the Dom it is the women who are more prone to alcoholism; they often drink heavily to numb their sensibilities. Sayina also speaks of the sexual harassment faced by women scavengers: "Middlemen approach us promising us work but demand sexual favours in lonely gullies or take us to their shops."

Shakeel Ahmed, an activist with PGVS, whose grandmother was a manual scavenger, speaks of the taboos that prevailed in her days and how the stigma exists even today. "We are Muslims so technically there is no untouchability," he says. "But it exists, maybe with a meethapan (sugar coating). The word halal (good) is used with reference to our work, but when my grandmother went to Mecca there were sniggers where we live that a mehtarani was going on Haj. People won't visit us or eat with us. Even today people are surprised that I send my son to school."

Shaheedan, his grandmother, recalls how in the homes where she worked she was unable to even look up at the sahib . "We were given two stale rotis per day," she says. Sometimes the payment was eight kilos of rice or wheat for six months. After a festive occasion or community feast the Halalkhor would have to go around calling aloud for baina or leftovers.

The stigma and insecurity make resettlement a challenging task. Usha Yadav, who coordinates the Garima Abhiyan, explains: "We are working amid a very feudal society in which there is very little sympathy or sensitivity on the part of the government officials. The education levels of the scavenging communities are abysmal. Out of 100 persons there may be at most 10 who have studied up to the eighth standard. So the men remain unemployed and the women are pressured to do this work. The men have no objection to a woman trudging four kilometres to work, but object if she wants to attend one of our meetings."

Government schemes under SUDA (State Urban Development Authority) and DUDA (District Urban Development Authority) for sanitation projects and resettlement of workers are oriented towards men, with training in cycle or machine maintenance. "In the rural areas there have been very few instances of the government awarding land to these communities. Alternative means of livelihood need to be carefully thought out. If a woman wants to sell eggs, will anyone buy from her," asks Usha.

Keeping these factors in mind, the resettlement programme encourages the women to understand and oppose social and gender biases. They are given the opportunity to pursue another means of livelihood while giving up scavenging work in some households. This gives the women the space and time to build up confidence. Some of them build on skills traditionally associated with the community. For example, the Halalkhor are highly musical, and adept in making chattais or sups (winnowing baskets). So Fatima Kaneez was encouraged to play the dholak in a band. Women have started selling bangles and bindis . Loans are disbursed to some to begin an occupation like cattle-rearing or selling fruit. The women under the programme have not yet been able to return the loans but are confident they can. At least 48 girls in the community have started going to school.

Slowly, perhaps, new pathways are opening up for these women who are at the very bottom of India 's occupational order.

(Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She researched this subject for )

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007