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The end for hands-on toilet cleaning in India?

Human Rights

‘Burn the Basket.’ Maila Mukti Yatra is a march for the eradication of manual scavenging. 

A year or so ago, I covered a truly moving campaign for the eradication of manual scavenging. This archaic, Victorian Indian term refers to a filthy, degrading occupation. Toilet cleaners manually remove human shit with two pieces of tin and a stick broom, or sweep a small river of shit with a stick broom. To a Westerner or a middle-class, city-bred Indian, this is practically impossible to imagine. When a friend first described the practice to me in 1997, I thought he was exaggerating. Then I visited Gujarat and became obsessed with the plight of the balmiki community. Fifteen years later, a great deal of work has been done. I’ve written about it often on my New Internationalist blog.

Although a few hundred thousand women have thrown down their brooms in protest, the practice rears up its head with alarming regularity. It’s mindboggling that our country – with its space programmes, nuclear capability and galloping economy – can still force some of its citizens to live and work in such pitiable, filthy, degrading conditions.

Recently the issue of manual scavenging has finally been brought to the forefront through the work of several committed activists as well as a few dedicated journalists, and slowly, though painfully and at a snail’s pace, things are changing. Activists and lawyers have been fighting in the Supreme Court, at grassroots level and with different groups, to eradicate the practice. One such people’s movement is Jan Sahas, which has been working on the issue for over a decade now. Founder Ashif Sheikh has been working to eliminate manual scavenging first in Madhya Pradesh and now at  a national level.

On Friday 30 November 2012, Jan Sahas will begin a national yatra: (journey or pilgrimage). More than 10,000 balmiki women who have given up their degrading jobs and become activists working to end manual scavenging  will join around 50,000 other balmiki people currently still working filthy toilets, to travel 10,000 kilometres of the country in a  national road rally. The movement is called the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. Their demand: ‘total eradication of manual scavenging’.

The two-month long yatra will begin from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state and culminate in New Delhi on Thursday 31 January 2013. A great deal of support and encouragement has come from livewire Minister Jairam Ramesh. There will be singing and dancing, street theatre, and many women will take their personal stories from state to state telling their audiences how they threw down those obnoxious brooms, the symbol of oppression, and found the courage to resist societal pressure to fight for their rights. Women have been beaten and verbally abused for daring to resist centuries of feudal authority. But they have stood their ground, inspired by the movement. They urge other women to join the struggle and throw down their brooms.

The anthem for the movement is ‘Fight for your dignity’. This is an historic battle for a community to regain its lost pride and self-esteem. Its lost dignity obliterated by centuries of abuse, oppression and subjugation. ‘Never again’ is another slogan. ‘Never again clean other people’s shit. Never again collect baasi khana (stale food given to them by the people whose toilets they clean). Never again  allow your children to live in shame and fear.’

This community has suffered unbelievably. Their battle to reclaim their pride is one of the most moving I’ve witnessed. We need everyone everywhere to join the movement, to express solidarity and lend support.

Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan raised the issue powerfully in the TV series Satyameva Jayate. He mesmerized India and had everyone talking about the issue. We need more celebrities like him to eradicate the curse of caste and untouchability. We need teachers, students, young and old people, politicians and the media to care about it passionately. To lead India out of darkness and throw away the shackles of a feudal, evil, caste system. It will take a lot more work, many more years. But I do believe, slowly but surely, this is one battle we shall overcome.

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