My name is Jamuna Devi and I live in Aishbag colony in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. I have been living in this colony with 100-200 people for the past few years. All of them are manual scavengers like me. This is the story of the many battles that I have fought with the society — having worked in the most inhumane profession- manual scavenging.
In our country, your profession becomes your identity and in many cases, works like lineage like in politics, military, or medical field. In my case though, I don’t know whether it was my identity as a Dalit woman that decided my profession or whether it is my profession that decided my social identity. Anyway, for 30 years I cleaned human waste with bare hands and it defined my position in society. From entering into pits full of human excreta to sitting thirsty for hours because upper caste seniors in Municipal Corporation didn’t allow us to drink water from the same tap, I have seen it all.
At every single step, we are met with disgust. Every single day, we are not only forced to realise that we are outcasts and that our only job is to clean filth, but also that we are doomed to live in filth and die in filth.
Going to work every day was like going to a war zone for me. You never knew what awaited. There were days when I used to enter into deep pits, human excreta used to be all over my body and even enter my mouth. On other days, I was required to pick dead animals from ‘nullah’. It’s very normal in my community for people to lose their appetite. How can anyone eat after coming out from a gutter or dry pit latrines with shit all over you? Asking people for some water to clean oneself was also tough. We would clean their shit, but they would hesitate even to give us some water. A few kind ones sometimes did, but these people too did it while maintaining a ‘safe distance’. We are Mehtars ( a sub-caste that’s involved primarily in manual scavenging) after all. Even at the Municipal Corporation of Lucknow, we weren’t allowed to even touch water taps that upper-caste seniors used to drink water. There were a lot of times when we had to remain thirsty for hours and continued to work because upper-caste seniors didn’t open the tap, nor did they let us open it.
Initially, it was tough – I felt bad – but I knew it was my destiny and that I had to accept it to survive. Seniors at work and elders taught me how to grow a thick skin and keep fighting. In moments of despair, clanship helps recover quickly. For 30 years, it was this solidarity, a world within a world that kept me, my husband and thousands of people like me going.
Men and women of our community largely have common and equal sufferings. But, being a woman is always a challenge. Within the profession, the systemic discrimination exists. Women get jobs like cleaning dry pit latrines where wages are less, while jobs like cleaning sewers where wages are higher are given to men. This is the case with those who work on a contract basis and majority are contract workers. While the condition of those like me who work with municipal corporations is slightly better, discrimination exists.
Further, whether contractual or permanent, dry pit latrines are mostly cleaned by women. Men also clean latrines but they mostly clean railway tracks and sewers. But it’s not just about payments or the division of work. There are numerous challenges that a woman manual scavenger faces while working. When I started working in 1977, I had to wear a gown while entering pits!. Also, we were deliberately told to not wear any sort of makeup – lipstick, nail polish or other accessories – while working. “Tees saal mein har din apni icchaon ko maarke kaam kiya hai aur parivaar pala hai.” (For 30 years I have killed all my desires only because of the work I do to feed my family).
Not just me, everyone in our community does that and we don’t complain as we have accepted it as our destiny. But, it doesn’t stop here. Women in our community are very vulnerable. They face serious safety issues. So many of our sisters and daughters are outraged every now and then only because people think that we are born to be mistreated and humiliated. And even if we want to complain nobody entertains us. They wouldn’t even come close to us to listen to our plight. The police also humiliate us and threaten us when we try and file complaints. These incidents forcefully make us realise that there’s no one below us; and how we are the most inferior of all.
I have fought a long battle for survival and dignity. I’m glad that while I and my husband suffered the consequences of being born in a Dalit community and destined to clean human waste, I managed to help my children find a dignified profession. They all are happily working in private firms and living respectable lives. At 60, I consider this my biggest accomplishment.
As told to Siddharth Tiwari