New Internationalist

Drowning in liquid filth – in 21st century India

MANUAL_SCAVENGING.jpg [Related Image]
A dalit manual scavenging. Dalit Network under a Creative Commons Licence

We pretend that people are not condemned to the caste system, Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes.

In 1996, I listened in disbelief as Martin Macwan, a dalit leader, told a Delhi gathering, ‘I am ashamed that as a dalit, working with my people for over 10 years, I did not know that balmiki people still carry shit on their heads everyday of their lives.’ It was on the eve of 50 years of independence from British colonialism. The Indian economy, we were told at that time, was poised to take off. Indians were ready to take over the internet world. Silicon Valley was ours for the asking. Yet we couldn’t deal with our own excrement with a modicum of decency. Women scooped it up, of different textures, from large open gutters, with a tin sheet, a stick broom and their bare hands. These were semi-urban toilets.

Putting on my journalistic hat, I went to Gujarat in early 1997 and visited public toilet after public toilet. I gagged often. I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever seen. And I have not led a sheltered life. Then I interviewed the family of a 19-year-old balmiki boy who while unblocking a manhole, was overcome by the toxic fumes, fell inside and died. He died for the paltry sum of about seven dollars. The boy died of drowning. Drowned in excrement. Till then I’d never given any thought to the common tiny news item ‘Man falls into manhole. Dies.’ I learnt later what this innocuously misleading little item truly meant. Imagine the indignity, the sheer horror, of drowning in shit. Imagine the nightmares his parents must have had. But perhaps they are inured to life and death as a balmiki conservancy worker.

In 1999 I wrote a book, Endless Filth’ about the horrible caste based liftetime occupation of the balmiki community, India’s ‘untouchables’ among ‘untouchables’. They are considered the lowest in India’s venal caste system and no one ever let them forget it.

That was in 1997. I have written endless newspaper articles about these people and the life they are condemned to lead by the caste system. Educated Indians ignore the unpleasant. We prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Almost 20 years later, little has changed. My good friend Bejawada Wilson continues to fight for his balmiki community to end the obnoxious, disgusting practice of manual scavenging. This year 14 April will see huge hypocritical celebrations on the 125th birth anniversary of towering Indian leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar who fought ferociously for dalit rights. Politicians of every hue can be seen jumping on the bandwagon to claim his legacy as liberators of dalits. Few of them ever bother to enforce the formidable barrage of laws which if put into practice could end the horrific atrocities faced by dalits on a daily basis. Every day, around three men die unblocking manholes in conservancy work. Ahmedabad NGO Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal believes that at a conservative estimate, there could be over 1,000 manhole worker deaths per year across India. The real figures are much higher as many deaths are covered up and go unreported even today.

India flaunts its global presence and boasts about India’s emerging image. Yet, we seek to hide the sordid reality of no toilets and the most neglected Indians dying everyday in a manner that must shame Indian society, any decent society. But we are a venal, thick skinned people. We don’t shame easily.

Bejawada Wilson and the Safai Karmachari Andolan have held a mammoth bus yatra (journey) covering every corner of the county. Their banner says ‘Stop Killing Us’. The memorandum was handed over to the president of India last week. Wilson says, ‘In India today, we talk about spending thousands of millions on a single bullet train, but haven’t yet found a way to automatize our sewer cleaning. The enormous hype generated by the ‘Swacch (clean) Bharat (India)’ campaign literally sweeps into obscurity, the dirt of manual scavenging and balmiki mens’ deaths by drowning in shithole sewers, even now in 2016, though Gandhi raised the issue and made untouchability a global term in 1901.’

Stop killing us,’ pleads Wilson. Will the government of India listen?

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  1. #1 ludwig pesch 26 Mar 16

    If we, the shocked (though hardly surprised) readers of this exemplary blog, have any words, let's first ponder this, the sheer horror and daily cruelty it entails for millions for no fault of theirs: ’Stop Killing Us!’
    And let this be heard clearly, as friends of India and Indians: ’Stop Killing them - Stop it NOW!’
    How? By living up to the promises of free India's founding fathers and founding mothers, to the constitution they framed and needs to be filled with life just as India's international, legally binding commitment to Human Rights. And by shunning all businesses, hotels or corporations in and outside India that fail to make their compliance clear and open to verification by independent agencies. Voluntary codes have never worked, merely created PR smokescreens and ’greenwashing’.
    Without personal friends from this ’community’ (having lost a young member in exactly the way described here), I'd find it hard to envisage the lives of people described here. Knowing their ambitions, the talents of their children, their integrity, I believe their future will be the proper measure by which to gauge India's perspectives in the modern world. Read ’Bhimayana’, the prize-winning graphic biography of Amedkar (now available again!) to regain hope when sanity seems all too far away. (Navayana, Rs. 325, with a Foreword by John Berger and lucid background information by S. Anand)

  2. #2 Sankara Narayanan 26 Mar 16

    Can shit collection be considered a ‘Spiritual Experience’? Definitely not. Well, Narendra Modi, the CM of Gujarat, has a different take on this. He discusses the age-old caste-based vocation of the Valmikis as an “experience in spirituality”. He writes: “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after gene-ration…. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.” He is the PM of India today.

  3. #3 ludwig pesch 29 Mar 16

    Mari and Sankara,
    thanks for bringing these opposite voices together in a single discussion: of those directly affected, generation after generation, and one representing the those who have never stopped to taken the misfortunes of millions seriously for what they are.
    Without your intervention, it would be hard, perhaps impossible to even convey to colleagues and friends, mostly admirers of Indian culture at its very best, what life in Indian society can mean for any child: merely for being ’of low birth’, even ’rationalized’ to keep conscience and accountability at bay. All this in this very ’modern’ age, as if to make a mockery of religious and social reformers including Vivekananda. Just imagine, of a man whose tragic but remarkable lifetime work has recently, relentlessly been turned into a nationalist, irrationalist cult he surely would have resented given a chance.
    It's no laughing matter, however bizarre. This is about an ongoing, preventable crime against humanity and a tragedy on a colossal scale, yet rarely exposed as mercifully here with due attention to facts and humanitarian concern, to wake us from our stupor and vanity as regards economic ’progress’.
    It's a tragedy one only Indian citizens can hope to stall with the means Indian law and the constitution have put at their - your - disposal, and that of the young people concerned. Provided education achieves its sole legitimate goal: making informed choices for one's own and one's society's present and future. Wishing you all success in this!

  4. #4 Gerard Oonk 31 Mar 16

    India's PM Modi calls this work - its hard to believe but true - an 'experience in spirituality'. The word spirituality has never been so abused. Forcing on a people because of birth in a certain caste to do this job and call it spirituality makes it clear that Dalits are still considered to be the ultimate OTHERS. Let them clean our shit and they will feel honoured and spiritual about it... This goes back to the thinking during the days of slavery when the slaves were - as many people argued - undoubtedly grateful to their masters because they were (mostly)kept alive.
    Would Modi consider to do this work even for one day to have this experience of spirituality himself? Of course not, but he does not belong to the OTHERS.

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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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