The Prime Minister’s Office,
We the people from Ambedkar colony, wish to send our belated greetings to the Prime Minister on the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the fifth anniversary of the Swacch Bharat Mission. After all, 2nd October was a very special day for us. The only day we receive masks and hand gloves from the government institutions. For you, 2nd October was another year to celebrate the Swacch Bharat Mission, another year to praise documented achievements. And for us, another year to hear about new promises, hopes and see the performances of Bollywood stars, cricketers, politicians, international diplomats etc. posing on the red carpet with ‘zadus’ (brooms) in their hands and surrounded by cameras.
Five years back, we felt hopeful and positive when the government launched the Swacch Bharat Mission across the country. The vision and objectives of the SBM had no mention of rehabilitation of manual scavengers, but nonetheless, we were happy that something positive would emerge from so much fanfare. But after five years of implementation of SBM, we still await justice, waiting for an India that is truly free of manual scavenging, not merely on paper. Dear Mr PM, Swachha Bharat Mission has no meaning if manual scavenging remains in India.
Ravi, 20, left his studies to help his parents run the family. Now he is working at the nearest petrol pump as a cleaner where he earns 2000/- rupees per month. Four years back he was in 10th standard. He was passionate about his studies. A student with lofty dreams and high hopes. He wanted to become a teacher. But then his birth was yet another “fatal accident” that ultimately forced him to abandon his dreams and join a social fold that was preordained in the writings of Manu.
Diya, 15, wanted to join the Police. Coming from a deprived background, she too couldn’t continue her education. Her father works in a medical college as a ‘safaigar’ and earns 6,000/- month. Seven years back her mother was working as a dry latrine cleaner but after the implementation of MSA 2013, she left manual scavenging with the hope of living a dignified life. She thought the 40 thousand rupees one-time cash assistance would help her turn around her life and that of her children. But then, neither did she receive any money, nor does she get any other work. Because she belongs to a “lower” caste. Because, again, it seems the writ of Manu remains stronger than that of law.
Diya, Ravi – they represent the new generation of Ambedkar colony. Compared to their earlier generations, they, in fact, have witnessed the widest disparity that ever was, while growing up. Because the screens of their 4G enabled devices or the unbridled glamour and glitz on TV makes them privy to the heights of what they could be and the depths of what they couldn’t. They have aspirations that fly high only to be dragged down by the reality of their life; chances that were severely curtailed by caste.
Dear Mr. PM, we face threats from government offices, every day. Whenever we raise our voices, they threaten us with eviction from this Ambedkar Colony. We have suffered a lot. Only we know how much we have suffered! Since the new bill Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger and Rehabilitation Act, 2013 came into being, we, with the help of local activists applied to get the benefits of it. As per its provisions, we should get training from the government to rehabilitate ourselves. But 5 years since its implementation, the saga of an unbroken history of broken promises continued.
Vaishali, 47, a widow and the mother of three is a brave woman. She wants to give a good education to her children so that they are able to find a decent and respectable job. She herself, however, would get no respectable job if she would disclose her identity. Every day she has to hide her real self to get the job of washing clothes and utensils in the households of upper castes. All this to earn 5000/- a month.
Sakshi, 24, is disabled. She lost her father in an accident. Her brother and mother both work in the Nagar Palika as ‘safaigar’ on a contractual basis. She is the only one in the family ever to have completed her graduation. Her dream is to get a government job and give a good life to her mother. It has been four years of rigour, but she has still failed to make her name appear in that so-called merit list.
Dipak (11), Rajesh (12), Lokesh (8) Gopal (10), Pruthviraj (14). They are all studying at the government school. Their parents are working at the hospital, Nagar Palika and Petrol Pump as a ‘Safaigar’. And it seems their aspirations have already reconciled with “fate”. When one asks them what they would want to become when they grow up, one will get the same reply. “I will get a job at Nagar Palika. So, I don’t need to worry about my future.” A reconciliation that each passing day diminishes the spark in the hearts of millions of such kids.
Dear Mr PM, caste separates us at birth from others. A separation that over thousands of years has meant immense physical and mental violence over the generations. But now we don’t want to see even our future generations living in cruel, degrading and inhumane condition. You have very high dreams for the nation, but the way you treat us, your apathy will sabotage the growth of our country. You cannot develop a nation by excluding a particular section of society.
Our country is known for its history and civilization. But it is the same history that has condemned us to suffer from hate and violence. We are a civilization that continues to tolerate manual scavenging and sewage deaths and refuses them a life of dignity. Dear Mr PM, you wash the feet and felicitate our brothers and sisters; your close friend and senior leader said “Wiping out the ’curse’ of manual scavenging is the ‘topmost priority’ for the central government”; but at the same time the central government slashes the budget for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. What are we to make of this?
Dear Mr. PM, in your book Karmyogi, you described that manual scavenging as an “experience of spirituality”. Why don’t people from the so-called upper castes also participate in such spiritual experiences? Why is it “reserved” for the Dalits? Why don’t you open your mouth about the continuing sewer deaths, why no “surgical strike” ever on manual scavenging? Why? because we are Dalits? Because we don’t have a voice to raise at the political platform? Because our political representation does not have the courage to speak against your failed policies? Do your people care about us? We want to know what is our mistake? And above all, we have the same flesh and blood that you carry in your body, then why this disparity?
You speak about the borders all the time. But any time one of try to transgress the borders of caste, if we dare to break the chains of caste, we are told by government officials “Ambedkar banana hai kya tumko?” (Do you want to become Ambedkar?) Dear Mr. PM, we want to remind you, that if we can speak against injustice and stand up against the oppressor today, it is because of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, because of his thoughts and guidance.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is known as a father of modern India, a messiah of the oppressed. In recognition of his contribution, all government offices have a portrait of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, holding the Constitution of India under his arm and pointing towards the Parliament. But sitting in the same office room, your people failed to rehabilitate manual scavengers, failed to give justice to the thousands of families who hoped for change. It took a while for us to realise that discrimination, in fact, starts from the same government offices. Dear Mr PM, beneath the smiles and behind the compassionate voices, your people (Ministers and officers) are following the oldest existing system of slavery on this planet. A system of graded hierarchy that is built on the exploitation of those at the bottom of the caste ladder to feed those at the top.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar said, “A man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.” We are human beings like others but we don’t have a choice to choose our profession, our profession is decided by our birth. In history and in the present, many Indian leaders have praised and glorified manual scavenging. But the fact is, this is not a “sacred work” and whenever we enter the sewer, clean your dry latrine while listening to your verbal abuse and while bearing your apathy, we do not feel like the “mother of the society”. We feel we did not deserve this kind of humiliation and torture.
Dear Mr PM, the time is now to act against this evil system. For the sake of others, we cannot kill our future generations. Already we have sacrificed our parents and precious lives of our brothers and sisters to clean this country. We have to stop romanticising sanitation and cleanliness at elite forums with national and international celebrities and we have to act right now. Referring to manual scavenging, the Supreme Court of India fumed at the your government and said, nowhere in the world people are sent to “gas chambers to die”, it is the most uncivilized and inhuman situation where the people are losing their lives in gas chambers without any masks or oxygen cylinders,” the bench said, adding, “You have to take care of people. People are dying every day due to this.” But will this just remain as just another outrage from the highest echelons of the judiciary only to gather dust? Or shall we act in earnest?
There are thousands of Ravis and Diyas in India and they are scarfing their hopes and dreams at the altar of their “fate”, their birth. There are thousands of mothers like Vaishali in India who are struggling to give a good life to their children. Thousands of Sakshi’s Deepak’s, and Gopals. They are born in the 21st century but are anachronistically part of a system that throws them back to the dark ages. Dear Mr PM, do tell us, how many more sacrifices you need before you take action? Please tell us what we need to do to get your attention? There are thousands of Ambedkar Colonies in India today. And they are all waiting for justice. Thousands of Ambedkar colonies that are fighting to liberate themselves from this slavery.
Once Martin Luther King Jr. said, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” In this Dark Age of 21st century, we have a dream to overcome this situation, dream to give quality education to our children, a dream of the annihilation of caste, dream to live a dignified life. We believe and are hopeful that one day a change is going to come, we have faith in our constitution, it guaranteed us a right to life with human dignity. The first sentence of the preamble “We the People of India….” reminds us, this country is built by people and for the people of India.
We look forward to your positive response and hope to see the changes in the upcoming days.
Republic of India