Growing up in Kolkata brought me face to face with homeless, poverty stricken people from an early age. Kolkata’s streets make it impossible to be shielded from poverty unlike some major Indian cities. As part of a student movement I worked in slum and village projects. Still, nothing, not even the worst Kolkata slum or 15 years immersed in adivasi (indigenous) villages, had prepared me for the face-to-face meeting with the filthy, inhuman reality of manual scavenging.
I have often written about scavenging in blogs for the New Internationalist and last year I described its practice and the recent struggle of the cleaners to throw down their brooms and ‘reclaim their pride’. Despite bills and acts being passed, real change is needed.
The first time I came across manual scavenging was in the state of Gujarat. I followed Leelaben, a sanitation worker, on her 6am trek to the huge, dry latrine which was her workplace. It took all my self control not to vomit violently. As I watched her sweep liquid shit into a basket with her bare hands and a broom, my stomach convulsed. That was January 1997. My journey into the world of manual scavenging and dalit* issues began through dalit leader Martin Macwan with the Navsarjan Trust in Ahmedabad, the former capital of wealthy Gujarat.
In 1993, India passed the Abolition of Manual Scavenging Act. Gandhi began the debate in 1901 when he talked about the shame of manual scavenging and untouchability at a national political meeting. The issue was raised by other politicians with monotonous regularity. Monotonous because nothing changed for the oppressed community, the debates remained mere rhetoric and hot air. The passing of the 1993 Act armed activists and human rights lawyers with a weapon to fight for the rights of the people, mostly women, who still carried shit on their heads. I wrote an article in Frontline magazine in 1997 as India celebrated 50 years of independence. And then I wrote a book, Endless Filth, in 1999. I covered most states of India and I was happy to see change being brought about by Action Aid, shortly followed by Christian Aid that sponsored work to stop the scourge.
The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) (Sanitation Workers’ Movement) led by Bejawada Wilson did a tremendous job. The entire team were from the community of balmikis, caste-based cleaners; the only people in India who were destined (condemned more like) for centuries to clean human and animal excreta. The SKA team were committed and passionate, it was their personal war for themselves and for future generations of their own people. The SKA led a nationwide movement and took the issue to the Supreme Court, backed by a team of dedicated lawyers and activists. There was a nationwide movement of protest and awareness raising which went from the northernmost Kashmir to the southernmost tip of Kanyakumari and there was a famous declaration of the end of manual scavenging. But today, hundreds of thousands of women continue to manually clean excrement in private and public toilets all over India.
About ten years ago, I interviewed Ashif and LaliBai, founders of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity and Elimination of Manual Scavenging), who recently led balmiki women on a national journey or yatra to abolish manual scavenging. The Maila Mukti Yatra or the ‘Freedom From Shit journey’ covered more than 10,000 kilometres, 200 districts and 18 states in 65 days. They knocked at the doors of more than 200 parliamentarians, organized various events and protests and held hundreds of meetings with the different ministries, state governments, the National Advisory Council, Planning Commission and various political leaders.
Meanwhile, other groups and individuals have worked quietly and diligently all over India to educate balmikis and move them out of the dehumanizing occupation. A new Bill has been passed 20 years after the 1993 Act. Yet this hasn’t excited me. Having watched and documented the struggles of this community since 1997, I’m cynical.
Highlighted repeatedly by the human rights activist A Narayanan and G Israel, a social worker, both from Chennai, are the sickening deaths of sanitation workers all over India everyday. These men die by asphyxiation. They are hit by toxic gas as they open manhole covers and fall in, unconscious. They literally drown in liquid shit. Yet no one gives a damn.
The Hindu newspaper’s editorial sums it up aptly. ‘Get serious’ it advised the government. The only new and encouraging feature of this recent bill is that it focuses on pinning responsibility on officials whose duty it is to ensure that these horrendous dry latrines are removed from every corner of their districts.
There is a crying need for better technology with regard to hygiene, and there must be rehabilitation opportunities for manual scavengers. But more importantly there needs to be the political will to eradicate a filthy aspect of India and liberate the balmiki community from this national shame.
* Dalits = members of the most discriminated against castes in India, historically regarded as ‘untouchables.’