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Burning the basket of indignity

By Agrima Bhasin

A yatra by 500 dalit and Haila Muslim safai karmacharis to motivate other women to give up the practice of manual scavenging and burn their brooms and baskets, will culminate in Delhi on January 31. The other leg of this journey requires a society that perpetuates this practice to shake off its caste bias

Manual scavengers

“Eleven thousand women in Madhya Pradesh have shunned the ‘unclean’ practice of manual scavenging. Five hundred women will be embarking on a yatra across 18 states and 200 districts to motivate other women to give up the practice! Friends, we have gathered here to inaugurate the yatra,” boomed the voice of the compere at Ravindra Bhavan, Bhopal, in November 2012.

At the event, slogans were shouted, folk musicians sang, chief guests were welcomed. The ceremonial lamp was lit. Speeches were delivered. Two women ‘liberated’ from the practice were honoured. Photo-ops were staged. And cameramen competed for space.

The Maila-Mukti Yatra, a journey to be free from manual scavenging, inaugurated at Ravindra Bhavan in Bhopal, is led by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity and Elimination of Manual Scavenging), which is a network of human rights organisations striving to eradicate manual scavenging. The Abhiyan (launched in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh since 2001) endeavours to motivate dalit women and Haila Muslim families to give up manual scavenging and oppose all forms of caste oppression and discrimination.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 officially forbids the practice of manual scavenging and the continuance of dry toilets. Regardless, women and men continue to be employed as ‘manual scavengers’. While the majority of ‘manual scavengers’ are women, several men too are forced to render this labour.

The efforts of the Abhiyan in the last 12 years have been aimed at making dalit and Muslim women aware of their rights, organising them into sangathans (collectives) which enable them to better negotiate their rights, and calling for their psycho-social, political and cultural rehabilitation. Currently journeying across 18 states (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Karnataka, among others), the yatra will culminate in Delhi on January 31, 2013.

At Ravindra Bhavan, a busy volunteer, a round-faced woman called Arti, was one of the two women honoured for their courage in deciding to ‘burn the basket’. Arti, now a volunteer with the Abhiyan, was born into a Valmiki family in Damoh town, Madhya Pradesh. For those unfamiliar with occupational segregation based on caste, the Valmiki community are dalits placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. They are socially ostracised and discriminated against because they have historically been compelled by their caste to render menial labour -- disposing of animal carcasses and human and animal faeces, assisting in childbirth and in morgues, castrating animals, beating drums at funerals, cleaning drains and septic tanks, and sweeping.

Arti, aged 35, matured into adulthood watching her mother receive a pittance and a few rotis in lieu ofmanually disposing the excreta of upper-caste residents in Damoh town. She dropped out of school at a young age to help her mother with the intention of ameliorating the hereditary burden. After marriage, her mother-in-law, continuing a common wedding ritual, bequeathed her basket and broom to Arti. This effectively meant that Arti would clean all the dry toilets her mother-in-law used to clean.

“Since manual scavenging has continued over the centuries and generations, we could not think beyond it. ‘Hamari soch bahut chhoti thi,’” (our perspective was narrow) said Arti. She credited Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan with liberating her from this “mental slavery” (mansik jakad). Recalling earlier interactions with members of the Abhiyan, Arti noted: “They told us that our experience of untouchability and discrimination was rooted in our continued association with handling human excrement. If we refused to do it, we would not be discriminated against.” The Abhiyan believes that inner motivation to consciously refuse cleaning up after others is the first step towards liberation for these women.

Arti acknowledged initially dismissing the Abhiyan’s unsolicited and unexpected advice. Later, she and other women of the village collectively recognised that there had to be a deeper message that the Abhiyan was trying to convey. “Otherwise why would they visit us again and again,” she asked, her eyes reflecting a firm resolve to never touch the basket or broom again. She smiled at her teenage son in the distance.

The outcome of her resolve, she narrated, was the gradual respect and dignity she and the other women earned. Feeling vindicated, she declared that the local police who earlier admonished them could no longer refuse to acknowledge their presence. The strength of the Garima Abhiyan sangathans combined with the women’s boldness in resisting caste oppression inspired confidence in them to give the local thanedar a piece of their mind each time he undermined their dignity.

“We can even draw water from the local handpump now,” Arti said with a triumphant smile. Members of the Abhiyan accompany the women in an effort to motivate them to consciously access social spaces (chai stalls, bathing ghats) and public resources (wells and handpumps) from which they were ostracised. Sitting in Madhya Pradesh, this reminded one of B R Ambedkar’s 1927 water satyagraha in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra (Mahad) where he mobilised around 3,000 dalits to drink water from a well from which they were formerly banished.

Several women gathered at Ravindra Bhavan corroborated Arti’s account of fewer experiences of discrimination and untouchability since they had discarded their baskets. A woman confessed that it was challenging for her to believe that her children shared the same playground with children from upper-caste families. It has been the experience of the Abhiyan that mothers feel hatred towards the practice of manual scavenging when their children articulate experiences of discrimination at school. Children therefore play a huge motivating role.

Another woman described it as a psychologically uplifting period in her life in which she no longer had to hurry past upper-caste dwellings, fearing rebuke. She was thankful that her everyday mobility was increasingly becoming unhindered. Both the women, although sceptical about the changes occurring in their lives, recognised that it was profoundly entrenched notions of purity and pollution that formed the basis of the behaviour of upper castes. 

At Ravindra Bhavan, folk musicians and the lyrics of their songs encouraged women to shun the practice. One woman broke into a spontaneous dance, turning full circle on the ball of her left foot in sync with the song’s rhythm. She was uninhibited. She was happy. The other women cheered her on.

But the celebratory air was suffused with a sense of contradiction. Behind the hearty sloganeering and occasional smiling faces of women who had apparently been ‘liberated’ from the practice,were voices and stories rife with insecurity and worry arising from loss of livelihood. “How long can I survive with no work?” “What work will we get?” It was with the expectation of gaining alternative work that many women had decided to attend the event. Armed with photocopies of grievance letters, property documents, or hand-written notes of request suitably thumb-imprinted by family members, this was a rare opportunity for the women to personally hand over the documents to Chief Minister Shiv Raj Singh Chouhan, one of the chief guests at the event.

Arti was upset that out of a thousand women gathered at the venue, not even five had been ‘rehabilitated’. Several others had, as is frequently the case, relapsed into picking up their brooms and baskets; the majority were jobless. The gathering comprised a mixed bunch of married women (young, middle-aged, elderly), single women (elderly, middle-aged widows without a pension, unmarried and separated women with no family support), adolescent girls who had been recently handed baskets to continue the practice, and a small group of men who had given up this work or ‘freed themselves’ from cleaning septic tanks and drains.

For most of the women and men who are not organised into sangathans or have not ‘graduated’, like Arti, to becoming volunteers with the Abhiyan, survival without a source of livelihood is daunting. Fear of aggression by members of the upper castes resistant to change in the caste order is a recurring threat for many. They also continue to experience frequent instances of untouchability. Even for women organised into sangathans, discrimination in securing alternative livelihoods is widespread and humiliating.  

A group of women at Ravindra Bhavan expressed their desire to work at anganwadi centres in and around the village. However, they quickly noted that their wish would remain a dream. “How will we get work at anganwadis,” they asked, disheartened that they were unlettered and untrained. The minimum educational qualification required for an anganwadi worker is Class 10 or a matric pass, and for an anganwadi helper it is basic literacy.

There is little doubt that functional literacy and basic training in health and nutrition would enable the women to effectively seek employment at local anganwadi centres as extension workers for India’s flagship Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme which is starved of staff. However, it is not only lack of education that deters them, it’s the practice of untouchability to which the women are subjected at these centres.

A sudden commotion at Ravindra Bhavan indicated the arrival of Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development. What caused the commotion was a bevy of soundbyte-obsessed camerapersons and reporters who formed a tight ring around the minister as he sat. They followed him as he stood up to walk around, precariously balancing their cameras above their heads. Elbowing other camerapersons out of the way, they waited to capture even the blink of an eye by the minister. The ritual was repeated with the same intensity when state Chief Minister Shiv Raj Singh Chouhan and Swami Agnivesh arrived.

“The ICDS is full of non-dalits! They even take adivasis but they leave us out. They should reserve positions in the ICDS for our future generations. Why do they hate us,” asked a woman strongly voicing her disapproval.

Dalit women also face discrimination while seeking employment as cooks for the midday meal programme. “We cannot be midday meal cooks. They say we will pollute the food,” said one woman. The deplorable irony, rather hypocrisy, is that dalit women, who traditionally are forced to assist in childbirth, cut the umbilical cord, clean up after the delivery and even care for infants after childbirth, are told that their touch pollutes the food they cook for children at schools!

The same double standards prevent women and men from getting work as construction workers or from other opportunities to earn a dignified livelihood. The experience is similar, if not worse, for women from the Haila Muslim community. Haila Muslims, otherwise categorised under other backward classes (OBCs), are outcast from social festivities and public gatherings and denied access to public resources. “Haila Muslims face caste-based discrimination and social exclusion similar to dalit communities,” says Ashif Shaikh, convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan.

Ashif regrets the unwillingness of society, the Muslim community and the government to recognise that the practice of untouchability, abolished by Article 17 of the Constitution, profoundly disadvantages Haila Muslims. Denial of such recognition forms the bedrock of the exclusion of Haila Muslims from availing of skills-training and financial assistance (loans and subsidies) for self-employment under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), as Muslim minorities find themselves in an unfair struggle to compete with Hindu OBCs for benefits under the scheme. “Cases of atrocities and untouchability against Haila Muslims remain unregistered due to lack of recognition and absence of legal protection such as the Scheduled Castes (and Scheduled Tribes) Atrocities Act 1989,” Ashif adds.

The chief guests delivered their speeches one by one. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan appointed himself ‘brother’ to all the women gathered at the event, a brother who would look after them. Swami Agnivesh, in a carefully staged moment, touched the feet of a woman and remained in that position until all the photographers had ‘captured’ the act. And Jairam Ramesh promised to prioritise the rehabilitation of ‘manual scavengers’ under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

“Money that is sanctioned for our rehabilitation almost always benefits families whose members never manually handled human waste or those who are better off (‘creamy layer’) among us dalits,” said Arti, adding that local police personnel still rebuked them occasionally when they sought to lodge a complaint. “The police also treat us as if we are ‘untouchables’. Should not all villagers enjoy equal respect in the eyes of the police?” asked an astute middle-aged woman.

“Corruption,” another elderly woman vehemently opined, “was rampant.” Anger in her eyes, she said, “We travelled to Delhi with members of Garima Abhiyan to meet the ministers. The ministers promised to do something. Nothing has changed.” The old woman’s eyes welled up with tears.

“We never knew our children were entitled to a scholarship fund under the 1993 Act. I found out only recently,” said Arti angrily. She was referring to the pre-matric scholarship to the children of those engaged in ‘unclean’ occupations. The scheme, started by the government in 1977-78, includes scavengers, sweepers, tanners, flayers and manhole or open drain cleaners as target groups for assistance.

The Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers 2007, with provisions for training and loans, is the principal scheme for the rehabilitation of ‘manual scavengers’ to alternative jobs. It used to be called the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS) 1991-92. The ‘manual scavengers’ are also eligible for loans at concessional rates of interest from the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation. The new Bill on manual scavenging pending in Parliament, retains the above provisions and makes three new additions -– a photo identity card, residential plot, ready house or financial assistance for construction (subject to eligibility), and livelihood skills-training for one member of the family.

In addition to these specific schemes, ‘manual scavengers’ can also invoke several welfare measures under the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan (SCSP) 1979, Special Central Assistance (SCA) for below-the-poverty-line (BPL) scheduled caste families, Scheduled Castes Development Corporations in the states and reservations for scheduled castes in government jobs and educational institutions.

Regretfully, the existence of these myriad schemes and provisions offers little comfort to the deprived. Low literacy levels among the ‘manual scavengers’ and absence of legal assistance translate to lack of information and awareness about government schemes for the community and for scheduled castes in general. Moreover, availing of loans (especially under the SRMS) is a bothersome process requiring ‘manual scavengers’ to secure the backing of a government guarantor. In addition to inordinate delays, lack of transparency and corruption, the repayment conditions of loans push the safai karamcharis and their families into an inevitable cycle of debt.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which reviewed the NSLRS, stressed that the scheme had failed to achieve its objective in the last decade. Funds available under it were either unspent or unused and there was no evidence to suggest that those ‘liberated’ had been rehabilitated. Even though the majority of manual scavengers are women, the scheme has predominantly benefited men.

“A one-time rehabilitation grant (under SRMS), which neither reaches us nor helps us rehabilitate ourselves, allows the state governments to claim on paper that manual scavenging has stopped and people have been rehabilitated,” Arti said. The truth, she argued, was that state governments and local officials siphoned off the money year after year, refused to register complaints and never penalised either dry toilet owners or erring public officers.

Arti and the other women expressed the wish that cash be directly transferred to the gram panchayat. “We can negotiate with our gram panchayat but cannot keep running to the nagar palika,” she said. Her comments beg discussion on the 73rd and 74th Amendment in the Constitution with regard to the role of panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies, in addressing developmental challenges.

The gathered audience of dalit women was instructed to shout slogans, ‘Maila Dhona, Band Karo’ (Give up manual scavenging)! As the chief guests delivered their speeches, the media men (yes, there were no media women to be seen), with their backs to the women whose liberation from manual scavenging was being celebrated, unthinkingly video-graphed the chief guests.

What do we understand by ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘manual scavengers’? The first words that come to mind are self-employment loans, concessional loans, scholarships, subsidies and alternative jobs. For international NGOs and development organisations, rehabilitation means a rigidly defined ‘targeted intervention’ to ‘empower manual scavengers’ in a few odd districts in one state.

Would the language of economic rehabilitation so often deployed by policymakers meaningfully rehabilitate a woman and her family if ‘rehabilitation’ were to be understood as a call for dignity, a plea to lend a patient ear, to not dismiss their concerns as unimportant? Away from the politics of money, what if we rethought rehabilitation as a demand for respect, freedom from deep-seated caste condemnation, an end to humiliating experiences of untouchability and an opportunity to earn a dignified living?

How would our understanding of rehabilitation change if the problem was reframed as ‘scavenging’, not ‘scavengers’? The most fundamental change called for here is to broaden the scope of rehabilitation to include us, the middle classes (as widely defined as possible) as target groups for change. Much greater persistence than that needed to convince women to shun the caste-enforced practice is essential to stir, awaken and alert the middle classes to acknowledge our role in the perpetuation of manual scavenging.

This significant section of the population remains greatly distanced from the ignominy and exploitation associated with handling faecal discharge. Our distance, far from being neutral, in fact fuels the apathetic discourse around the dignity and rights of ‘manual scavengers’. Stirring our middle-class conscience to recognise our prejudices (organised along both caste and gender) is an enormous task.

That is because this prejudice is a malaise that not only infects our minds but, by extension, our institutions of justice and decision-making, workplaces, schools, universities and our polity. Since institutions are constituted of individuals, the structural change and systematic overhaul that we desire has to begin in our minds. Laws and government schemes, important in themselves, can offer economic rehabilitation, but the process of restoring the dignity of and securing psychological and social liberation for those employed as ‘manual scavengers’ has to start with us, in our everyday conversations.

The women and their strife were lost in all this. The cameramen and reporters who thronged the venue did not interview a single dalit woman. The following day, the newspapers carried pictures of the dignitaries, not the women who had graced the gathering…

 (Agrima Bhasin is a researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think-tank engaged in research and policy advocacy on issues of social and economic justice. This is the first in her series on safai karamcharis researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012)

Infochange News & Features, January 2013