From the pulpit of the magnificent Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of cleanliness and aimed to make India open-defecation free by 2019, the year coinciding with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.
A Swachh Bharat would, after all, be a fitting tribute to the father of the nation. Ingrained in the idea of Swachh Bharat was the dignity of women. Ending open defecation and constructing toilets meant that they would be provided with safe and private spaces. But missing from the conversation was the dignity of one important group of women – the manual scavengers.
While violence and sexual assault might be a problem faced by all women in India, there is no denying the fact that the most reprehensible crimes are reserved for Dalit women. When caste combines with patriarchy it forms a lethal combination pushing women into the most dehumanizing profession possible. The violation of the rights of a Dalit woman and the injustice she faces has a long, painful history. Statistically speaking, crimes against Dalits have risen by 746% in the last ten years. An atrocity against a Dalit is committed every 15 minutes and 6 Dalit women are raped every day.
Most cases are neither registered nor acted upon and the perpetrators are mostly let off the hook. A woman Dalit manual scavenger is exposed to these dangers way more than a Dalit woman working as a teacher or in a government office. Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson states, “Within Dalit families, women are the ones who clean the human excreta from the dry pit latrines because this task offers the lowest wages, men are more likely to clean human excreta on the railway lines and sewers where the wages are higher.”
Report from Human Rights Watch shows that out of all those engaged in manual scavenging of dry latrines and removal of human excreta, 95 per cent are women. Significantly, while men are paid in cash, women are mostly paid in kind. Men are paid around 300 rupees for a day’s work and women, if paid, are paid between 10 to 50 rupees per month. Mention must be made of the ancient Jajmani system.
This is a system that translates into ownership rights to clean a specific number of toilets. The Jajmani system was hereditary and matriarchal where it was transferred from the mother-in-law to the daughter-in-law. These ownership rights meant that marriages were done on their basis because the number of latrines a woman cleaned was equal to the amount of food she would be bringing home. The India Exclusion Report 2016, stated, “These rights are equivalent to property rights and can be bought and sold, always in connection to the women of the family. In times of crisis, these Jajmani documents are also pawned to borrow money.”
This is precisely why women are at a double disadvantage – the construction of more and more toilets will have a negative impact on the lives of these sub-caste Dalit women unless there are steps taken for their proper rehabilitation. As an increasing number of toilets are being constructed through government support, the question arises how will the pits of these latrines be emptied? Because for now, it is the women who crawl into the pits of these latrines with their baskets, fill them with human excreta and carry it on their heads.
Not only does excreta leak on their bodies exposing them to numerous diseases it also makes them subject of ridicule and discrimination by the so-called upper castes, exposing them to sexual threats, pushing them into segregation, and denying them public services.
A report submitted to the United Nations by the Rashtriya Gramin Abhiyan gives details about the health hazards these women face – diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory problems from inhaling methane and hydrogen sulphide and skin disorders, anaemia, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning and severe infections like Leptospirosis, Hepatitis, and Helicobacter. To fight the stench of the spilled excreta most of these women smoke chillum, which further damages their bodies affecting not just their own health but of their babies too.
So why do these women continue to work in these sub-human conditions? Without much help coming from the government, women are engulfed in a vicious circle of caste and patriarchal domination. The India Exclusion Report notes, “No poor Brahmin or member of any non-Dalit caste would ever even consider this job of scavenging, not even in a state of complete penury and starvation. This is where it is important to understand how basic one’s caste is to one’s occupation and livelihood.
If you speak up against caste oppression then you risk losing your livelihood and often even your life. The livelihood of scavenging, ironically is, in fact, the only security that the community has as there is no competition.” Speaking of rehabilitation brings me to the government policies aimed at these women manual scavengers. The government constituted National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), gives Rs. 40,000 to manual scavengers, in monthly installments of maximum Rs. 7000. Just like other schemes started by the government with good intentions this scheme has failed its implementation test as payments are delayed and corruption has crept in.
The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has made clear that though women scavengers are entitled to a loan of Rs. 15,00,000, the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers has received a negligible amount of money. The Central government paints a different picture and claims to have rehabilitated around 90 per cent of the more than 11,000 identified women manual scavengers.
Whatever the figures, the ground realities do not match. In this caste-based hereditary slavery, women continue to suffer, trapped in debt-bondage and at the mercy of evil money-lenders Let us hope that while the government payments reach the bank accounts of these women, states too come up with innovative solutions like Kerala where the finance minister Isaac Thomas announced his will to stop this evil practice and declared that a robot will be used to clean sewers and manholes.
Let us also hope that by 2019, Swachhta reaches everyone and is not just about mere quoting of numbers and that toilets constructed are used and states truly declared open defecation free. And that the Swachh Bharat of 2019 is an equal Bharat which sees not just the end of open defection but an end and rehabilitation of manual scavengers, not just on paper but in practice as it reaches the lowest castes of women, and dignity and safety not just a prerogative of the upper caste women but that of the lowest and the most marginalized women of India as well.