New Internationalist

A lifetime in muck

Issue 414

The business of human waste disposal is a respectable and well-paid profession when conducted by a certified plumber or civil engineer. It was not always thus. Until the automatic installation of flushing toilets in modern European homes, cesspits containing the noisome contents of the ‘necessary room’ were emptied by a hidden class of workers known as ‘nightmen’ or ‘rakers’. In some parts of the world, such people still exist. The bucket-emptier who passes by under cover of dark in parts of Ghana, or the vyura (Swahili for ‘frogman’) who empties latrine pits in Dar es Salaam with nothing more than a spade to help him, continue to ply their humiliating trade – often without confessing to it. Gradually, the job of manual shit-shoveller is dying out or being technologically replaced. But far too slowly on the Indian sub-continent. There, a transformation of social attitudes, toilet habits and facilities, along with real political commitment, is still sorely needed. Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports.

In India, large numbers of those working in human waste disposal do what is euphemistically known as ‘manual scavenging’. We are not talking about Western-style lavatories here. The women – they are mostly women – who clean shit do so in horrific conditions.

Gowriamma, Narayanamma, Renuka – her name varies from place to place but it always places her as a member of one of the groups in India traditionally known as ‘untouchable’ because of what they do. Her story is the same, from Kanyakumari at the tip of the sub-continent to Kashmir in the far north. Gowriamma might be 25, 35 or 45 – she is never sure. But from the age of 13 onwards, she has cleaned excrement relentlessly from 6.00am to 10.00am every morning.

The stench is nauseating, overpowering. These ‘dry latrines’ or public defecation facilities are enclosed spaces with long, open, shallow drains. There are raised foot rests for the users to position themselves. They then squat and do their business. Gowriamma’s job is to empty the drain.

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 which she carries to a spot where a tractor will arrive to pick it up. No gloves. No water. She always hitches up her sari tightly so that it does not trail on the ground. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to go through a day’s work without some of the shit inadvertently splashing on to her clothes and person.

In India the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) – the ‘Sanitary Workers Movement’ – is fighting to eradicate the practice of maila dhona, which is Hindi for ‘lifting shit’. (‘Manual scavenging’ is the leftover English Victorian term still used by the Government, but this is rejected by SKA.) SKA reckons that there are over 1.3 million people cleaning dry latrines in India. Of these, more than 95 per cent are dalits (‘untouchables’ or ‘scheduled castes’) and 92 per cent are women. In 2003 the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment declared officially that there were only 676,009 safai karamchari left – still a very large number, but a serious underestimate according to the SKA.

Feeble government efforts

From the time Gandhi raised a stink about the practice in the early 20th century,  successive Indian governments have announced programmes motivated by shame that there remain people whose existence from birth to death is mired in humiliation and filth. In 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who was obsessive about eradicating maila dhona, enacted an Act of Parliament making the practice illegal and the existence of dry latrines punishable by law.

Rao also set up a Commission for the rehabilitation of the safai karamchari community. He chaired it himself but his deadlines were ignored by government officials. And although the Government spent 4,738 million rupees ($110 million) from 1992 to 1998, only 13 per cent of the identified workers were given training, and only 28 per cent were rehabilitated. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India in a recent report points out that the central grant of Rs6,000 million ($140 million) has ‘gone literally down the latrine’. That is the level of apathy combined with corruption which has denied the community its right to a new livelihood.

Government indifference is fuelled by the attitudes of officials from upper castes (the politically correct term is ‘dominant’ castes), who have total contempt for those belonging to the community they are supposed to be helping. They return millions of rupees to the central fund rather than give them out to those for whom they are intended. Clerks and lower-level officials block disbursements, deliberately placing ridiculous obstacles in the way. For example, there are resources available for workers’ rehabilitation, but as soon as a dry latrine is demolished they say: ‘Since the latrine does not exist, you are not cleaning shit any longer, so you are no longer eligible.’ Bank officials ordered to give loans to liberated safai karamcharis reject them as bad investments.

SKA, along with the Garima Abhiyaan, an organization working for safai karamchari rights in Madhya Pradesh, and the Navsarjan Trust working for dalit rights in Gujarat, have taken the battle all the way to the Supreme Court of India. Chief Secretaries, the highest level of civil servants in India, lied to the Supreme Court and were hauled up before it, ordered to conduct surveys of safai karamcharis and dry latrinesin their respective states and to demolish the latrines and rehabilitate the workers.

Both Photos: Stan Thekaekara
Both Photos: Stan Thekaekara

How the workers see things

Everywhere some members of the community cling to their occupation because they have no alternatives. They were born into the task of maila dhona and receive a miserable wage for their work, but if this ends what will they do? Right now, if you organized a public debate there would be two violently opposed schools of thought. The old school fights for the right to keep their turf, terrified that if the ‘dry latrine’ they clean is razed to the ground, their bread and butter, or rather their dal and roti, will go down the drain with it. On the other side are the newly politicized, emancipated community members led by SKA or like-minded groups, who have flung down their brooms in protest and vowed never to clean shit again. 

The activist groups want to move people out of descent-based ‘scavenging’ and ‘sweeping’ occupations to cut them off from centuries of stigma. SKA, Garima Abhiyaan and Navsarjan Trust have taken a stand that they will train both women and men of the dirt- and shit-handling community in new occupations.

The battle against untouchability is far from won. But there are stands that people with principles can take

Their argument is that cleaning toilets and shovelling dirt, even in an ‘upgraded’ version of the tasks, are not respected occupations. The names used to describe such people – terms such as bhangi, dom, thotti and mehtar – are derogatory and have become terms of abuse in India and Pakistan. And stigma attached to people employed in dealing directly with human waste is not confined to the subcontinent. Those involved in similar practices in Africa and Japan are similarly scorned. Although the sanitary profession in the West is respectable when it comes to public health engineers, plumbers and bathroom manufacturers, socially self-regarding people do not dine with their dustmen. The people who clean toilets in Heathrow or JFK airports are not ‘untouchable’ but they are nonetheless an underclass. These are among the lowliest jobs in any society.

In India, to clean or not to clean will remain a big question to a liberated safai karamchari. Over time, public facilities all over the country are gradually being upgraded and the ‘dry latrine’ finally relegated to the dust. And then what happens? The newly commercialized sanitary sector is handed on a platter to upper caste business interests as soon as it becomes lucrative and respectable. Dominant caste people take the contracts. They may employ people from the community, but only to do the really dirty work. In Mumbai airport recently, I was amused, then angered, by a huge floor-cleaning machine, vacuuming and mopping the floor in one go. The man behind it enjoying his new toy was clearly not from the sweeper caste.

SKA has set 2010 as the target for a maila dhona-free India. It would only be fair if those members of the community who wished to retain their jobs could be contracted for service provision once the jobs are upgraded. In the city of Chennai, sweepers recently complained that the Corporation contract for street cleaning was given to a Singapore company, which then contracted it out but not to them, thereby depriving the traditional sweepers of their jobs. Such marginalization can happen in any agricultural or industrial modernization process, even one so far to the fringes of society that people pretend it is invisible. So while it is imperative to give members of the community new and better options to take them away from centuries of slave-like conditions, it is important to fight for them not to be sidelined the minute the jobs become less objectionable and foul.

The battle against untouchability is far from won. But there are stands that people with principles can take. Ahmedabad activist Gagan Sethi recently set an example by employing two young women from the sweeper community to cook for his office staff. It is high time that all NGOs and donor agencies followed this example and demonstrably put the campaign for social integration at the top of their own agendas. Training and employing safai karamcharis as cooks makes a political statement against the notion of untouchability and pollution. Young people and students now need to take a stand against maila dhona, and join the quest for a new non-shit-shovelling India.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular NI contributor based in the Nilgiris Hills of Tamil Nadu.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on A lifetime in muck

Leave your comment