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“Not Every Dalit Is A Manual Scavenger, But Every Manual Scavenger Is A Dalit”

Drenched in half chest sewer,
Struggling to survive,
Unaware of their legal rights,
Born in this, dying in this fight.

The concept of manual scavenging started even before the 1930s. Women and men who specifically belonged to Scheduled Caste, the Dalit community, were the ones allotted this job. Amidst the ill-treatment, the community faced, the meagre earning they had from this cleaning job was the only bread and butter they were able to put on the table.

Is it too much to assume that after 80-90 years, manual scavenging, discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, colour or creed will disappear? Right to equality will actually be accessible to all.

To be honest, it is eerie to expect too much positivity in a single sentence because for a  country like India, with a flooding population and affluent diversity in terrain, culture and religion, the government is caught in the never-ending loop of solving the differences among them. It is like an ouroboros.

On September 6, 2013, the Indian Parliament passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (the 2013 Act)with a promise and a commitment to end this hazardous activity and despite that, it is still practised in large scale.

Illustration provided by the author.

In fact, lower caste women (Dalit women) still clean dry toilets, also called wada toilets, in varied areas of UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Every year, thousands of manual scavengers die while cleaning dry toilets and latrines, because of the unhygienic toilets and lack of cleaning equipment. Usually, they clean it with their hands and in villages, they receive stale food as a salary, they don’t get paid in cash. If we try to look at this from a broader aspect, most of the manual scavengers are poor and uneducated. For a person who hasn’t been in their shoes might feel that maybe by increasing the employment rate and educating them, it would make their future bright and they won’t be driven to work in such an awful condition.

But, if you look at the ground level, it is not hard to decipher that casteism and social acceptance are the two major factors sinking them in a quicksand of degradation and discrimination. After watching this famous documentary by ScoopWhoop based on Manual scavenging, one is forced to face the harsh reality that not every Dalit is a manual scavenger, but every manual scavenger is a Dalit.

The men working for the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) cleaning manholes and sewers are educated but they had to leave their post-matric studies because they aren’t given preferences for they belong to the Dalit community.

Also, in states like Uttar Pradesh when Dalit women protest and avoid working in the dry toilets, the upper caste men mistreat their husbands and prohibit them to collect fodder and fruits for their living. In short, no matter how many laws and articles are amended for the betterment and upliftment of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, it is this society which is not eager to accept the changes. It is not ready to accept that a bot brought up in a Dalit family, can actually hold a better position in a job than him.

When you read and discover books like Untouchable by Mulkraj Anand, you realise that as a society, we haven’t actually developed. Despite the reservation and Fundamental Rights, we are still fighting the same war; even after 90 years, we are still fighting for the equality of those vulnerable groups, who still don’t know that they can actually stand up for themselves in court, question the society for indecent comments and atrocities.

People like Bezwada Wilson and many other Indian activists are trying to burn candles at both ends, only to end this persisting battle of manual scavenging and exploitation of the Dalits. We are still on the same page as we were 100 years back. The only difference is that now the few percentages of people, be it from a reserved class or not are trying to eradicate it. They are trying to acknowledge this issue.

If we continue to work on it, we might end up compelling the higher authorities to invest the taxes on these issues and not on Indian Heritage sites, because this is not India our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and B.R Ambedkar wanted it to be.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Credit: Counterview
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