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"This is our fate"

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

The women who clean our filthy public toilets are called ‘safai karmacharis’. We would do well to call them ‘bhangis’ and remove the pretence of understatement, says this writer who has been studying the community for the last 10 years and finds the process of change excruciatingly slow

I have travelled through Bihar , Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, meeting safai karmacharis . Amongst the most despised and reviled people in India , these are the women who clean our filthy public toilets.

Every woman I talked to repeated similar and tragic stories. In Gujarat , it was Gangaben, in Andhra Pradesh, Narayanamma. With minor variations, this is what they said: “In the rainy season it is really bad. Water mixes with the shit and when we carry it (on our heads) it drips from the baskets, onto our clothes, our bodies, our faces. When I return home, sometimes I find it difficult to eat. The smell never gets out of my clothes, my hair. In summer there is often no water to wash our hands before eating.”

Every time, the sheer horror shouted out. Yet, the women went about their work with so much dignity. Gangaben was spotlessly clean; her home was equally clean. Narayanamma wore flowers around her oiled, neatly arranged hair.

Many of the women I met were born in villages and grew up in sylvan surroundings where they were never exposed to the hell that a small town public toilet represents. Several women told me about their first encounter with the fate “written on their foreheads”. In Bihar , Devika said: “My marriage was arranged soon after I came of age. I was so excited because I was going to a town. My friends teased me. I'd move from being a villager to becoming a fancy city girl. ‘You can go to the cinema, you'll have electricity', they laughed.”

The dreams were shortlived. A few days after the wedding, her mother-in-law took her to the nearby toilets to introduce her to their daily routine: four interminable hours of sweeping faeces every morning. “I had never seen a toilet like this. I felt ill. I vomited, a non-stop retching till nothing more would come out. I thought I would faint,” she recalls. “My saas said ‘Enough nonsense now. You have to get to work. This is our fate. To feed our children we all have to do this work'. I somehow got through the morning. The next day I had a fever. But I had to go back to the toilets.”

I began studying the “bhangi” community in 1997. I use the word “bhangi” deliberately, to remove the pretence and hypocrisy that makes us clothe our crimes in understatement. We pretend to be politically correct, using the Victorian term “night soil” because it helps us to deny the horrible reality. A reality which means that in 21st century India , which boasts the best IT experts in the world, we continue to have the most inhuman sanitation arrangements.

I went to Gujarat at the invitation of Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad, an NGO fighting for dalit rights, to meet women who carried human excrement in baskets on their heads. I went from one taluka to another, from one toilet to another, and everywhere the story was similar. Women physically lifted shit, using two pieces of tin and a broom. Moved it into a basket and carried it on their heads, or hips, to a dump.

The horror of the latrines was unimaginable -- little or no water, the piled up shit mixed with urine and water overflowed and blocked the drains. It was pure hell. And this was where the women worked day after day, from 6 am till 10 am. Followed by another late afternoon session.

The women of the balmiki community, as they are now called, are thrice discriminated against. As women, as poor people, and as untouchables. They are at the absolute bottom of the caste ladder -- considered polluting, shunned. Sociologists explain that men from deprived, excluded communities follow a pattern of depression, alcoholism and domestic violence. They vent their anger and frustration in violent outbursts against the women. In almost all the balmiki hamlets I visited, there were drunken men around by afternoon. This is a community that has been cheated and betrayed. Crores of rupees have been sanctioned for them; most of it has been siphoned off by corrupt officials.

Women who work for the city corporations get paid a minimum wage, though payment is often delayed. Those who cannot get these jobs work for a pittance. I met women who were paid as little as Re 1 a day for cleaning private latrines. They were given stale food as part of their wage.

Mulk Raj Anand's classic Untouchable , written in 1935, vividly describes a reality that, decades later, I still encountered in prosperous Gujarati towns. Balmiki women did the rounds crying out: “ Maa-baap , please give me something.” People threw food into their baskets -- leftover rice, stale chapattis and vegetables. They took this back home to feed their families.

In Rajasthan, small, malnourished balmiki girls trailed their mother everyday and started work with buckets and brooms when they were only eight. Never before had I encountered such hopelessness in children. Like their mothers, they too will be married by the time they are 13 or 14.

All this made them feel they were worthless, born into a hopeless situation because of the sins of a past life. Social and religious sanction keeps them firmly in their place at the bottom of our hierarchical society. Women who try to break out of the system find themselves trapped by the taboos of the caste system. Those who try are discouraged, jeered at, threatened and beaten up for daring to move out of their predestined roles. A sustained campaign all over the country has broken new ground for some women. But it is an excruciatingly slow, painful process. It is more than 10 years since I began writing about balmiki women. Little has changed.

(Mari Marcel Thakekara is co-founder of ACCORD, an organisation working with adivasis in the Gudalur valley, Nilgiris, and Just Change, a cooperative of producers and consumers. She has been writing on social issues since 1980 and contributes regularly to The Hindu , the New Internationalist and other papers)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007