New Internationalist

Does anyone give a s**t?

2013-09-12-toilet.jpg [Related Image]
Cleaning toilets is a caste-based job in India Ignas Kukenys under a Creative Commons Licence

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.’

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  1. #1 Charlotte Simpson veigas 17 Sep 13

    Your work is truly amazing dear mari.I can see God working through you .The marginalized or as babu would say the ’Antajya’ are at the centre of your endeavour.I am sure that babu is smiling from above and saying ’Mari you make me feel as proud as a peacock’.Keep up the good work dear mari.May God bless you and your family always!

  2. #2 Aloke Surin 17 Sep 13

    It is indeed sad to reflect that this ’occupation’ still haunts India, 67 years after Independence. It needs a concerted political and bureaucratic will to completely eradicate this blot on the face of India's social fabric.

  3. #3 ludwig pesch 17 Sep 13

    Mari, your thoughtful blog reminds me, again, of a dear friend's brother in Chennai who suffered this terrible fate, leaving behind a young widow and child. The graphic description of what this entails describes the horror and sadness we, the poor family's student friends, all felt at this wholly avoidable tragedy. Even then there was a sense of hope then that it would all change for the better soon (i.e. in the late 70s, call us naive or idealists, a word since used to denigrate one's sworn enemies even back home in Europe).
    Thanks for this timely reminder that things just don't change with lofty thinking in the absence of viable alternatives. They surely exist but for a price - a small sacrifice in term of investing in hygienic conditions and replacing slavery (or whatever euphemism politicians use) with more productive, more dignified work.
    Your mention of decades of missed opportunities proves that top-down miracles don't simply happen. Not even if even with the best of intentions among the more enlightened members of India's wealthy and super rich. Change wants to be facilitated with compassion and foresight. (Forget about foreign investors in India, they sell chemicals like insecticides and then the medicines to mitigate some of their effects if you can afford them; and crowd control equipment for the poorest if they turn unmanageable because they can't.)
    The people (or rather victims) you write about have a constitutional right to be make change for the better to happen - and to know what keeps them from getting a decent life until now.
    Where are the Indian full time philanthropists desperate to spend their quick earnings in the service of the others? Please help me out if I have missed some name or other ...
    Going by a brilliant piece by Ramachandra Gush, there's more than a handful of tasks for all to make the miracle happen: ’ “The ten political and social challenges that India has to deal with it are ...’
    Read more here

  4. #4 enakshi ganguly 18 Sep 13

    I was born in a city of North East of India, Shillong (meghalaya). Our dry toilets were cleaned men from a community of Sikhs, who only when I grew up and studied Sociology, did i realise were Mazhabi Sikhs, and low down in the caste heirarchy of the sikh community. I was too small to know or understand the implications. But I do recall that the men would consume vast amounts of alcohol and shout loudly, their voices resounding in quiet hill roads.

    When I grew up and went back to study in University in Shillong. The Sikhs who shovelled shit were still there, although their work had greatly diminished, thanks to the introduction of flush toilets. It is then that I came face to face with the realisation of the extreme indignity of the work that this community was forced to do to survive. Not that I justify alcoholism, but i did recognise why alcohol was a huge escape mechanism for them.

    Clearly caste and indignity attached to some caste professions never go away even after embracing of religions that are said to be casteless!

    Enakshi Ganguly
    HAQ Centre for Child Rights

  5. #5 cavery 18 Sep 13

    Thanks Mari for taking it up again.
    When will we ever learn....

  6. #6 Esi Dadzie 18 Sep 13

    You can only hope this time the Indian government will truly give a s**t...

  7. #7 Chandrika sen Sharma 18 Sep 13

    It is such a horrific shame that in this day and age, such inhuman conditions still exist. We need to wake up and substitute other ways and means for public latrine cleaning. What are the alternatives in a country where no flush public latrines exist?

  8. #8 Deepthi Sukumar 19 Sep 13

    Timely writing Mari. thanks a lot.

  9. #9 Shiva Shankar 19 Sep 13

    'Civilization' has yet to arrive in Hindustan.

  10. #10 david cohen 23 Sep 13

    I find myself moved in reading Mari Marcel Thekaekara's moving blog on Dalits, Adivasis and Balmikis.

    While poverty cannot be escaped in Kolkata, it can in too many US cities, divided by freeways
    that often divided or destroyed communities.

    Mari's writing on the Sanitation Workers Movement, and the role of women, brough back memories when Martin Macwan, referenced in the blog, told me of a successful protect--among many-- where Dalit women refused to clean the excrement until they received tools so that they would not have to use their hands. Over the years I have used this as an example of successful protesting and organizing that leads to policy change that is hopefully implemented and enforced. It is a powerful and inspiring story.

    In my country, here in the US, there remain rural areas with inadequate plumbing and sanitation. Continuing efforts are made to change that. We improve, albeit too slowly.

    In the US I am encouraged by the growing organization of Day Laborers in our country.
    They bargain for wages above the minimum, for overtime protections and I hope in time for basic health benefits.

    One area of action that we ought to pressahead--something the unites those in India and in the US who struggle for people's dignity-- is to take these issues to international tribunals.

    Embarrassment and shame of those decision makers who do not respond to these ongoing violations of human dignity, is a fair, prudent and measured advocacy action.

    David Cohen
    September 23, 2013
    Washington, DC

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World
    E-mail address:[email protected]

  11. #11 Joe 11 Jan 15

    A great deal of time, money and energy have been spent designing low cost composting toilets, even ones that generate harvestable methane that can be used for cooking/heating, as well as producing biologically safe fertilizer that doesn't stink any more than good garden soil. What's amazing to me is that there is no mention of these alternatives in this article. Also, why censor yourself in the title...shit is any case, thank you for your hard work towards social justice for what must be the most maligned workforce in the world.

  12. #12 Joe 11 Jan 15

    A great deal of time, money and energy have been spent designing low cost composting toilets, even ones that generate harvestable methane that can be used for cooking/heating, as well as producing biologically safe fertilizer that doesn't stink any more than good garden soil. What's amazing to me is that there is no mention of these alternatives in this article. Also, why censor yourself in the title...shit is any case, thank you for your hard work towards social justice for what must be the most maligned workforce in the world.

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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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