It’s 21st century and ‘casteist’ manual scavenging still exists!

Manual scavengers are the unsung heroes who often go unnoticed, in our society, on a daily basis. The ‘veils of privilege’ that many of us wear has led to underestimation of the perpetual existence of caste-based manual scavenging. It’s 21st century and the casteist act of manual scavenging continues hitherto, unfortunately.

Despite having so-called laws like “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993” and “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013” in place, the ‘policy lag’ and ‘implementation lag’ are visible, compared to the facts revealed by the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry.

Officially, 66,692 manual scavengers have been identified across the country. Uttar Pradesh, the state of Ram Janmabhoomi movement, ranks top with 37,379 manual scavengers. In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that there were 96 lakh (9.6 million) dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed — official figures put it at less than 700,000. An estimate in 2018 put the number of “sanitation workers” in India at 5 million.

These manual scavengers do not receive much slot in mainstream news because they’re not fighting with Pakistan or China. They’re not the ‘pawns of foreign policy’ but sadly they continue to be the pawns of Brahminical social order. Nobody bats an eye when our soldiers are dead by suicide than dead by terrorism from Pakistan. Because mental health is still a stigma in India even today.

Nobody would be willing to bat an eye knowing that in the last 5 years, 340 manual scavengers are officially dead by cleaning the septic tank or sewers. This data is refuted by Bezwada Wilson, the legend who is brutally fighting the casteist practices of manual scavenging on ground. He claims that he has been collecting statistical data on this subject since 1993 and that it is only after the year 2000 that he has been able to start getting figures. On his website, contrary to what the government has published, he has put the figure at 1,760 deaths.

Have we become such a morally dead society that the deaths of manual scavengers are only subjected to catchy news headlines or blog articles, or are we really consecrated to undo the heinous activity?

“[Manual scavenging] is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.” — National Advisory Council resolution, October 23, 2010

Amidst the brouhaha over ‘modernity’ and chest-thumping over ‘oldest civilization’, Indian society continues to culturally practice the structural establishment of manual scavenging.

A HRW report on this subject, for instance, revealed that several women who sought to leave manual scavenging requested local authorities to free them from this disrespectful vocation. They confessed that the local or district authorities failed to intervene when they faced threats from the households they served, as they intended to leave the work. As retribution for leaving, the workers were denied access to community land and resources or threatened with eviction, frequently with the backing of village councils and other officials.

Many of these workers carry Hepatitis A, E. coli, Rotovirus, Norovirus, and pinworms. The community risks infection by coming in contact with these wastes. That also explains why sewer workers die as young as 40, falling prey to multiple health issues: cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid and cardio-vascular problems. In fact, repeated handling of human excreta without protection leads to respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia, jaundice, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning.

“In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. This is the most inhumane [way] to treat human beings like this.”Justice Arun Mishra, Supreme Court, 2019

As we are aware that, in India, name is not everything. Surname (caste) is everything. Most of these workers usually belong to the Balmiki (or Valmiki) or Hela (or Mehtar) subcastes; considered at the bottom of the hierarchy within the Hindu community itself. It would be very schizophrenic to deny that casteism does not exist today. It does, like the respiration process, and brutally continues to degrade the social scope of compatibility and fraternity. Thus, there’s a dire need to have the global communities call-out against manual scavenging as well as casteism in India.

The continuance of such discriminatory practice (caste-based manual scavenging) is purely a violation of ILO’s Convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation).

You see, it’s only the Dalit community that is enabled to do such a degrading profession. There’s no chance of upper-caste doing this activity. This tradition is stemmed from one of the fifteen duties of slaves enumerated in the Naradiya Samhita, a Hindu text. Later on, the Manusmriti coded the laws and duties of caste strata. For generations, this legacy has continued and persists even today. This book “Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India” (1999) by Bindeshwar Pathak has a detailed analysis on casteist norms on duties, especially manual scavenging.

Along with it, it is of immediate concern to read Dr Ambedkar’s book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ from the school level onwards, so as to smash the root cause of casteism and proceed India with progressive thoughts.

“When I read about the proposed 2020 Bill, I phoned Bezwada Wilson. ‘Has nothing changed?’ I asked. ‘The change has been incremental,’ he replied. ‘The worst hell holes are found in Rajasthan; in Bundelkhand, in Dholpur, in Ajmer. Parts of Uttar Pradesh are still bad. These are expected. But surprisingly, even a state as progressive as Tamil Nadu has small towns where women clean filthy public toilets with brooms, buckets and their bare hands. Just outside Coimbatore is one such place. Our SKA workers face harassment when they attempt to stop Valmikis cleaning these toilets. They are so filthy, its inhuman.” — Mari Marcel Thekaekara, author of Endless Filth (1999)

90% of the manual scavengers are women. Out of which 84% are married. Women are however paid less, compared to men and thus we observe the case of gender bias too. The laws discouraging this act are subjected to the state list and then the municipal list, and there’s a dearth of proactive steps in this discourse.

Bezwada Wilson argues that the failure of implementation of the 1993 Act is a collective failure of the leadership, judiciary, the administration, and the Dalit movements to address the concerns of the most marginalized community. Unlike infrastructure projects like metros, the issue receives little or no priority from the Government and hence the deadline to comply with the 1993 Act has been continuously postponed. Such is the stigma attached that even professionals who work for their emancipation get labelled (for example, Bhasha Singh was labelled ‘manual scavenging journalist’).

This article was first published on YKA site.

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Jaimine

Jaimine

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A libertarian professor based in Mumbai, youtubing at times, and reading books all-the-time. I write too. Dhamma practitioner.