New Internationalist

The end for hands-on toilet cleaning in India?

‘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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  1. #1 Ludwig Pesch 30 Nov 12

    For a European perspective on ’To a Westerner or a middle-class, city-bred Indian, this is practically impossible to imagine.’ - yes, the filth I encountered during my first visit to India was worse than anything imaginable. I wanted to turn around, the stench, the filth, the sick all over the place except in the nice homes I was privileged to be welcomed in. Since then, India has become my second home with a very large chosen family.
    Interestingly in the context of your timely, a film has just been presented during the Amsterdam documentary festival (IDFA) which I am yet to see - my friend Elisabeth lives right there, in the ’Jordaan’ quarters: the main former slum of late 19th c. and until 2nd world war. She told me how much she was impressed, and how grateful she is that those times are over: epidemics including TB and worse, the consequences of exploitation in insanitary conditions and overcrowded migrant quarters because many profited from all this misery.
    Oh yes, not to forget: the brother-in-law of a very close friend in Chennai died early while working as scavenger in the corporation's sanitation department. He left a young widow and child behind. Wonderful, decent people. And so sad, entirely avoidable, but still conditions all too common, a common sight I never forget: men emerging from sewers covered in human excrements for a meagre living. Not a career choice for anybody!

  2. #2 chandrika sen sharma 30 Nov 12

    As usual, Mari, you've exposed yet another nugget of information that most people either don't know about, or turn a blind eye to! Kudos to you and to people like Aamir Khan who make this public information.

    Chandrika Sen Sharma
    Prominent Properties Sotheby's International Realty
    90 County Road
    Tenafly, New Jersey 07670

  3. #3 Ashif 01 Dec 12

    Maila Mukti yatra (National March for total eradication of Manual Scavenging) is the landmark step by the 11000 liberated manual scavenger women marching 10000 km across the country for total eradication of manual scavenging practice and new legislation for comprehensive rehabilitation.

  4. #4 Sameer 01 Dec 12

    Indeed its very thought provoking article. Maila mukti yatra will be crucial intervention to generate awareness about existence of manual scavenging practice. However, it must contribute for effectiveness of new proposed new bill and accountability of Government for total eradication of manual scavenging practice.

  5. #5 Maureen Lobo 04 Dec 12

    I love your articles which are so socially relevant.

  6. #6 david cohen 16 Dec 12

    Some years ago while travelling in Gujerat in India,
    I heard of examples of people refusing to scavenge.
    They organized, they protested, they succeeded.

    As Mari Marcel Thekaekara rightly points out
    there are no permanent or total victories. That
    is why the national protest march is so important
    to engage people.The balmiki protesters deserve
    all our support. Their support from the arts community
    and popular cultural personages is important. The
    protesters are not alone.

    I am struck by how the slogans, particularly of
    ’Never again’ convey words, thoughts, feelings
    that have been used by other movements. That
    shows the power of universality in the context of
    a specific movement. Here we all stand with the
    efforts to end permanently manual scavenging.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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