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'We will never clean shit again'

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

There are still thousands of people in India cleaning dry latrines with their bare hands, including 7 km from the capital. But there are many signs of change too: on August 15, the Safai Karmachari Andolan plans to declare Andhra Pradesh the first manual scavenging-free state in India, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara, starting a new column on social inequities and the people who are fighting for social justice

We have the dubious distinction of being a society that has some of the most oppressed people in the world. At the very bottom of the heap are India’s sanitation workers. Outcaste and untouchable, they are recorded in corporation rosters as “manual scavengers” -- an archaic, colonial term as derogatory as the colloquial bhangi, mehtar, chuhra, dom commonly used in the north and thotti and paki in the south, all practically synonymous with abuse. Despised and segregated, they continue to ply their trade in much the same way as they did over 100 years ago when Gandhi first brought their plight to the attention of the world at a 1901 Congress meeting in West Bengal.

What is the scenario 60 years after Independence?

Manual scavenging and dry latrines were rendered illegal by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act No 46, 1993. Narasimha Rao, as prime minister, took this on as a personal mission and instituted a national commission to abolish manual scavenging. But nothing much has happened in the century since Gandhi first denounced the abhorrent practice.

The issue has kept popping up over the years. Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable graphically highlighted the horrific conditions under which manual scavengers live and work. His novel took the bhangis’ story to every corner of the English-speaking world. Appasaheb Patwardhan, a freedom fighter, caused a furore in 1933 when he, as a Brahmin, insisted on cleaning jail latrines in solidarity with their cause. In 1949, the Barve Commission published its findings expressing outrage, horror and a burning desire to change the living conditions of manual scavengers.

Many other commissions came and went with sickening regularity. But very little changed for members of the community.

Today, dalits criticise Gandhi for not challenging and questioning the caste system. Several Gandhians, inspired by Gandhi’s harijan campaign, began trying to improve the lot of the manual scavengers. However, though laudable for their time, their efforts were patronising and did not question the basis of untouchability. They were content with “improving” the lot of the bhangis by giving them better brooms, gloves and sanitary equipment. No one asked why bhangis, their children and their grandchildren should be condemned to the same hellish existence of cleaning shit, simply by virtue of their birth. Ambedkar called them the lowest in a system of graded inequality.

Ambedkar was the first to point out that technological solutions were not the answer. The cancer lay in the caste system and the practice of untouchability which condemned this community to generations of bondage and occupational servitude, brutalising them and stripping them of every vestige of human dignity. It was this Ambedkarian response to Gandhian paternalism that gave rise to a new militancy within the dalit movement.

No middle class person can even begin to understand the plight of the manual scavengers. Possibly a glimmer of the horror of their existence can be experienced if we listen to the women themselves.

I tracked these women starting in Gujarat in 1997 when Martin Macwan, a dalit friend, announced at a public meeting in Delhi that his Navsarjan Trust working for dalit rights had unearthed the fact that on the eve of 50 years of Indian independence, women were still carrying shit on their heads.

“In the rainy season,” Kamla (name changed) began, “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 I find it difficult to eat food sometimes. The smell never gets out of my clothes, my hair. But then in summer there is often no water to wash our hands before eating. It’s difficult to say which is worse...”

Kamla is the archetypal sweeper woman. I have interviewed her at different times, in different places from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, over a period of 12 years. She has told me her story in Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil, Punjabi. With minor variations, it’s the same everywhere.

Most women found it painful to relate the initiation experience. In Andhra Pradesh, Renuka (name changed) recounted her story. “I was from a village, and when my marriage was fixed to a town boy all my friends teased me, ‘Oh you lucky girl, you will have electricity, you can go to the cinema, watch TV, you will forget all your old village friends and become a townie’. The wedding was fun; there was music, a feast. I had a lovely new sari, lots of bangles, flowers in my hair. After a week of visiting relatives etc my mother-in-law said, ‘OK. The wedding is over. It’s time for work. You have to come with me tomorrow morning’. I was happy to work. But when I reached the workplace I was shocked. I had never seen such a toilet. In the village we just went to the fields every morning. My mother-in-law said, ‘It’s our fate. Our life. Just take the broom and start’. I felt sick. I vomited endlessly, a non-stop retching till nothing more would come out. I thought I would faint. My mother-in-law got angry. ‘You are born into a sweeper’s family, not a maharani’s (princess). Do your work, then we can leave’. For months I vomited. But I had to do it. I couldn’t look at food afterwards. This is our fate. Even now I can’t eat dal, the sight of it makes me nauseous. But for 25 years I had to continue. To feed my children I have no option but to do this work.”

Her husband added: “Poor thing. When she came she was like a flower. Plump, pretty and laughing. The work took the bloom away. She cried every night, she became sick, miserable and thin. She was never the same again.”

For the Renukas, Gowriammas, Gangabens and Narayanammas, the day starts early. From 6 am to 10 am every morning they clean excrement relentlessly. Then there is an afternoon session. The stench is nauseating, overpowering. First, she sweeps the shit into piles. Then, using two flat pieces of tin, she scoops it up and drops it into a bamboo basket that she carries to a spot where a tractor will arrive to pick it up. No gloves. No water. As soon as she arrives, she hitches up her sari tightly so that it does not trail on the ground or touch the shit. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to go through a whole day’s work without some of it inadvertently splashing onto her clothes and her body.

As I pushed on with my investigations, I discovered that the practice of maila dhona (the term the women use, rather than manual scavenging) was alive and well in most parts of India, with the exception of Kerala, Goa and the northeastern states. Having travelled around Gujarat to check out hundreds of varieties of dry latrines, both community as well as individual privately-owned toilets, I thought nothing more shocking could emerge. Then, in 2003, in Sikar, Rajasthan, I met little girls who were working alongside their mothers. They began as helpers, accompanying their mothers at the ages of 6 or 7, often with a baby sibling on their hip. They would help in small ways and would do the rounds collecting waste food, leftovers from their mothers’ employers. This would constitute the family meal. Slowly, they were pushed into substituting for their mothers when they fell ill; by 10 and 11 they were regulars. When I looked into their eyes they were dull, lifeless. These little girls had never ever known the meaning of childhood. At 13 or 14, on attaining puberty, they would be pushed into marriage and the cycle would begin all over again.

I assumed that our metropolises would not have dry latrines, and highlighted the fact that, in 2003, I discovered maila dhona being practised 7 km from the Patna parliament. Well, Bihar is another planet I thought. Then, last year, the Safai Karmachari Andolan called TV crews to film women carrying shit in different parts of Delhi. There was consternation in government circles. But the shame is always short-lived. A few officials are questioned, an inquiry is held, then it’s business as usual.

The government’s response has been shamefully inadequate. In spite of laws banning the practice of maila dhona and abundant money for the rehabilitation of members of the community into new occupations, very little reaches the people, Although Rs 473.80 crore was spent between 1992 and 1998, only 13.29% of identified workers were trained and only 29.7% rehabilitated. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in a recent report, points out that the central grant of Rs 600 crore sanctioned by Narasimha Rao has “gone literally down the latrine”.

Everywhere, government apathy stalls, indeed actively blocks, the women from accessing their benefits. In March 2008, I interviewed women who were struggling to get their benefits from the government in states as diverse as Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and Orissa. In Haryana, where toilets had been demolished, the officials said: “Well, the toilets have been broken, so you are not cleaning them. So you cannot claim compensation or rehabilitation.”

The most successful work done with the safai kamdar community has been through activists from the community. Working among safai kamdars requires real dedication. These are a people who have been oppressed, humiliated and degraded for centuries. Understandably, they have an innate distrust of outsiders. Predictably, alcoholism is rampant. It’s practically impossible to deal with human excreta, rotting carcasses, post-mortems of stinking, putrefying corpses unless one is heavily sedated, rendered insensible by alcohol. So, a deep understanding of the scarred psyche of these people is essential.

The ’80s witnessed the birth of groups who had moved to a more questioning mode. Those working with safai kamdars began to ask, ‘Why should they clean toilets? Why untouchability?’ It was a move away from Gandhian harijan paternalistic treatment to the Ambedkarian dalitmovement. There was no more talk of better brooms and toilets, but of moving off the bottom rung prescribed by Manu’s caste hierarchy.

In Chennai, in 1997, I encountered Janodayam founded by Fr Claude D’Souza. The approach was to create awareness among the safai kamdars, to conscientise, a la Paulo Freire, to politicise, and to ensure that education moved them out of the need for such a degrading job. The activists recruited came from the cleaning community, took pride in the fact, and worked with a commitment for their cause. When I interviewed G Israel, who was then running Janodayam, he expressed satisfaction over the great strides the community had made and the number of graduates and post-graduates who had benefited from Janodayam’s aggressive education drive. Venkata Raghavaiah, one of Janodayam’s success stories from the cleaner community, now worked as a cashier with the telephone department. He had worked closely as personal assistant to Salappa of the National Safai Commission and had been inspired and influenced by him. The lesson that emerged from the two decades of Janodayam’s experiences was that education, role models, mentors and mothers play an important part in bringing about change.

A pioneer in the field was Bindeswar Pathak who began an amazing network of Sulabh International toilets all over India, and centres for education and rehabilitation of safai kamdars.

In Karnataka, a massive campaign to stop maila dhona was undertaken by dalit minister Basavalingappa. This is one instance where political will, backed by sheer force of personality and zeal, has resulted in definite change. Tamil Nadu dalits pointed out that in Karnataka safai kamdars, or pourakarmikars as they are referred to in the state, have a much better deal because of the determination of one man.

However, since the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993, a lot of things are coming undone. For example, the railways are handing out cleaning contracts to non-safai kamdar contractors to avoid the intricacies of the Act. This robs safai kamdars of secure jobs, pensions and benefits. They continue to do the same work, are paid less and lose their benefits. And no one in the panchayat or corporation is liable for prosecution even though scavenging continues unabated.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) was started by a group spearheaded by Bejawada Wilson, himself from the community, and S R Sankaran, an IAS officer committed to the cause. According to the organisation’s figures, there are over 13 lakh safai karmacharis cleaning toilets all over India. Of them, more than 95% are dalits and 80% women. However, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment officially announced in 2003 that safai karmacharis number only 676,009.

The Andolan completed a massive survey covering 51 towns in 12 districts of Andhra Pradesh. It discovered that manual scavenging was alive and well in 43 of the 51 towns. And this, in a high-tech, cyber-savvy state proud of its millennium modernity. An integrated effort at rehabilitation, involving the community in the planning stage, is currently underway in Andhra Pradesh through the Safai Karmachari Andolan. The SKA has managed, through a massive demolition drive and awareness campaign, to eradicate the practice of maila dhona in most parts of the state. On August 15, 2008, it plans to declare Andhra Pradesh the first maila dhona-free state.

Starting from the Kolar Gold Fields outside Bangalore in 1986, the SKA has grown into a national movement that reaches across 14 states including Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, Uttarakhand and Bihar.

A landmark legal trigger has been the filing of a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, in conjunction with 13 other organisations including Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat and Jan Sahas in Madhya Pradesh, focussing national interest on the issue. It was a historic victory that the chief secretaries of eight states were summoned to the Supreme Court and forced to admit that the government had lied to the court that the practice of manual scavenging had been stopped in their respective states.

Hope lies in the fact that as I write this, in most parts of the country dedicated groups are fighting to rid India of this demeaning practice; fighting to liberate women, men and children from the scourge of scavenging. Hope lies in the fact that the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Navsarjan Trust and the Garima Abhiyan of Jan Sahas in Madhya Pradesh have succeeded where 100 years of government apathy have failed.

Hope lies in Meena from Haryana who says: “I was fed up. I threw down my basket and broom at the feet of my employer and said ‘Bas, I’ve had enough insults. I will never clean your shit again’.” The women I met in Punjab and Haryana were strong, feisty, full of spirit. Years of humiliation and abuse had not succeeded in breaking them. They believed that change was around the corner, that they would survive. One thing all of them were sure of -- from New Delhi to Nagapattinam they would never clean shit again.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2008