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Clean Up Your Act: Why The Ugly Practice Of Manual Scavenging Continues In India

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By Ankita Surabhi:

Bezwada Wilson is the recipient of 2016 Ramon Magsaysay award for his relentless efforts in ensuring and recognising dignified life for the low-caste manual scavengers. He pioneered the movement to fight against the prevailing social order by convening the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), which has alleviated thousands of manual scavengers in over two decades since its inception.

Manual scavenging in India is not new and demonstrates the lopsided social structure that was more or less rigged to prevent evolution based on equality as we transitioned into the modern age. The Shudras or the Dalits classified on the basis of occupation remained economically backward for obvious reasons – cleaning and wiping made little contribution to the society which was all about religion, wars and trade.

Basically S(he) who cleans, cannot contribute. How then, can such a practice have survived and thrived to be employed against the entire class resulting in their physical and mental oblivion? The answer lies in our mindset.

India is undergoing a massive cleaning drive (read Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) as we put back the C in a civilised society. While crinkling noses at community dumps and trash sites whether designated or assumed to be a personal littering spot are automatic, what’s not uncommon is the invisible army of men and women who clean human excreta using their bare hands, makeshift tools and removing it from the public eye in baskets, repeating the routine several times day.

It’s disgusting, even to think about it. We have altered our methods from the traditional Orissa pan, mug in hand, left hand at work to jet sprays and health faucets, and an over enthusiastic flush to portray that IT was never there. The country’s living standards are a confusing mulch of high, middle, low, very low and the undetermined, economic class practices.

Our progress has been haphazard with poisonous helpings from the caste cauldron to pacify fragile sentiments and maintain the facade of traditional social order. It made no sense in the past for person A to clean person B’s shit, and it certainly doesn’t today either. But as history will tell you, knowledge and learning are tools of mass oppression as well.

Hitler executed Jews in the name of racial purity. Here, armed with Brahmanical intelligence derived straight from the scriptures which couldn’t be soiled or contested by the low, working class folks, a construct was built to segregate people and groups based on their occupations.

It may have been wrongly assumed that a knowledgeable person could also be thoughtful and just. While wars were about brute force, planning, strategy, annihilating the enemy without lifting a sword, were what ultimately led to peace and military superiority. The introduction of the brain above the brawn.

When territorial integrity is secured, everything else falls easily into place. Someone who can provide a solution without monetary or resource depletion is an asset, and the asset with its clique of endorsers and supporters finds itself at the helm of affairs.

We do not question authority because we believe they know more and better. Even if at that time and age, the very first Shudra who had refused to clean someone else’s litter, it wouldn’t have taken long before s(he) had to succumb to the passive demands of the obnoxious elite who didn’t want to look at his/her own waste. It’s dirty. It smells. Let me outsource the job. In comes the desperate destitute who bows once to clean after you and has not been able to look up ever since.

It in impertinent to ask, why have they not protested, why haven’t they invoked Article 14 and 21 of our mighty constitution. They have.

In 2003 SKA, civil society organisations and seven individuals involved in manual scavenging filed a writ petition under Section 32 to eliminate the practice. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered States to abolish manual scavenging while calling for liberation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers.

Largely unreported and unaddressed were the numerous deaths due to poisoning, accidents and injuries sustained while cleaning sewers and drains without safety gear. The judgement stated that entering sewer lines without protective gear even in emergency situations was punishable.

Depravity can crush the mightiest in the fight for survival. Economic and social stigma has robbed lakhs of the free, dignified life promised under our laws. While untouchability is prohibited under Article 17, would you or anyone want to make contact with someone who spends their hours diving in putrescence? Don’t judge yourself. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to make contact either.

From a legislative standpoint, such social practices give life to Article 17. In a seemingly fair democracy, the norm is the violation or deprivation while the exceptions shine as landmark judgments, policies, directives and orders to be forgotten and shelved till the next tragedy or in this case nauseating truth explosion. States owe a duty to all its citizens to protect them when they can’t do it themselves, when they are discriminated against and when laws stagnate in disarray.

It is imperative that planned elimination, recycling and disposal of waste be done for public facilities. The Municipal bodies under state sponsored schemes for which a significant amount is allotted by the Center effectively to implement the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 as well as provide relief and compensation to families who have lost breadwinners in this line of work.

It is not enough to build toilets without developing mechanisms to treat and clean waste. It is not just a dirty job. It is a hazardous occupation that is sustained through social and economic atrocities leading to unfair classification.

The recognition of Wilson’s work is reflected in the award, and will provide impetus to the long forgotten cause of human upliftment on multiple levels. The fifty-year-old had first spoken out against the prevalent usage of dry latrines in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka where Dalits were brought in to get rid of the waste accumulated time after time, often with no running water supply.

Today while thousands of Dalits have overcome the shadow of oppression to claim their rights, many remain to be emancipated. In spite of the drudgery and challenges surrounding this problem, reinforced by the backward mentality of upper castes, the ideals of the Constitution will prevail as long as people like Bezwada continue to lead the fight.

It is just the beginning.

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Banner image source: Sharada Prasad CS/Flickr
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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