“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a very open and common aphorism, taught since childhood. But why is this practice of godliness confined to one particular community, namely the Dalits? To be more precise, the lowest among the social hierarchy in India?
Manual scavenging, the practice of carrying raw human excreta with bare hands, is often perceived as a practice that took place in the past or something that happens in rural India. Unfortunately, manual scavenging is a dehumanising and humiliating daily reality in India taking place not only in rural areas but also in mega cities like Delhi.
This appalling practice is exclusively reserved for the Dalits, the ones placed at the lowest in the social ladder of India. According to recent updates, a central government task force has so far counted 54,130 manual scavengers in India, which is a four-fold increase from the official statistics of 2019.
The immediate reason that comes to our mind when we talk about the very existence and engagement of manual scavengers is poverty. However, Mr Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and the National Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan reiterates that “Poverty has nothing to do with Manual Scavenging, but the only Casteism”. It is important to understand that this is what that makes this practice a vicious cycle – “caste identity”.
Caste may not seem as dictatorial today as it was a hundred years back, but definitely, caste has a ripple effect even today. There is a kind of internalisation in the society that this job of cleaning has to be done by the Dalits. There are many examples of how even education and acquiring other skillset have not let these scavengers come out of this. Despite getting the education or acquiring other alternative skill, watertight caste binaries don’t allow them to take up other professions.
The worst affected are the women among the Dalits. Around 95% of the manual scavengers are women. Along with caste, they have to bear the double burden of class and gender. These women have become permanent victim bodies because of the constant suppression of oppression and exploitation that they undergo.
As we celebrated 74 years of Independence, what could be more shameful to our country than this? On the one hand so much money is spent on satellite technologies and cleanliness drives, but on the other hand, we have miserably failed to curb this gross practice of ‘godliness’ which costs human lives. Those who clean human excreta with bare hands suffer from different kinds of respiratory and skin diseases.
More often than not, the scavengers are not given the required safety gear while entering the sewers and get choked by the sudden release of toxic gases or get drowned in the sudden gush of sewer waters. In case of such an incident of death, cash assistance is all that is thought about, but that too very rarely.
What needs to be understood is that the solution is not in providing cash assistance but providing them with all the support. As Dr B. R. Ambedkar said, “JHAADO CHODO, KALAM PAKDO” their real emancipation is in acquiring education. Any discussion today on caste smoothly lands upon reservation and reservation leads us to the debate on merit.
In a society entrenched with caste, class and patriarchy it is crucial to understand that merit is birth into privilege. We are talking about merit in a country where even classrooms are filled with discrimination and prejudices. The rate of school dropouts are very high among the Dalits and even more high among Dalit girls, years of reservation have not been successful in bringing them to the mainstream.
The focus needs to be on primary education where children are ensured discrimination free learning environment and equal learning opportunities. These safai karamcharis have been historically and deliberately kept on the margins and forced to clean the nation.
Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, and further, a law was passed again in 2013. But despite these and other constitutional provisions, we as a country have failed profoundly to abolish this practice.
When the debate gets hotter on whether India can become a superpower or not, my question is how can we even try to become a superpower, when almost 1.3 million people are enslaved to this obnoxious practice because of their mere ‘fatal accident of birth?’