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The Absent Struggles And Lived Experiences Of Sanitation Workers From Mainstream Media

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This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Trigger warning: Caste-based discrimination

It has been seventeen years living in Bengal and now as a teenager, pretty cautious about the daily news, let me be absolutely honest about how many times I have seen the practice of manual scavenging making it to the news headlines.

Well, the count is zero.

The mainstream media, be it the regional (Bengali) one generally watched at my house or the national media, chooses to be absorbed with the fire-breathing speeches of political leaders preceding elections. As they mostly go one-sided while reporting scandals, it is very much evident who are actually paid for favourable reports. The common people’s minds are filled with news of ‘theories’ behind celebrity suicides, but not even once has the media actually bothered to raise awareness around the rising number of deaths and suicides among those engaged in manual scavenging. 

Chind labour in india
Representational image.

If you type “reports on manual scavenging” in your search engine, the algorithm will present to you a number of articles which are very much superficial and mostly based on mirroring of data figures collected from various surveys and sources such as survey conducted by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation on manual scavengers in 2018. And, well, unusually (?) most data and experiences are collected from only the urban parts of the country; the rural areas where hundreds have to face the casteist slurs every day while on the way to work, escape the WIDE RANGE OF NEWS MEDIA of the nation.

As you read this, please take a mental note to search for at least three reports on manual scavenging on the ‘popular’ Indian news sites- I would like to point out that a repeated pattern can be found. Maximum articles are introduced with data from surveys, without a detailed perusal of the effects on the workers, followed by ‘woke’ statements from certain ministers, activists, say, for instance: Social justice and empowerment minister Thawar Chand Gehlot on Tuesday said the figures the states supplied in 2015 had underestimated the actual number.

“The states did not report correctly because they wanted to avoid further questioning as the Supreme Court has fixed a deadline for ending the practice of manual scavenging,” Gehlot told a workshop on prevention of hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.”

The very usual format of an article on manual scavenging- data based on the deaths of sanitation workers only from a metropolitan city, no analysis of problems, but also, please notice, how the law says workers with adequate safety equipment “CAN BE HIRED”!?, whereas the system of manual scavenging needs to be banned.

And, what about an analysis of the measures to be taken for the development of the sanitation workers? Or an analysis of measures that supposedly have already been implemented? Absent.

Just providing the common people with data won’t help; would it?

The number of deaths among the workers has been on the rise ever since the very existence of the system, but does the media seem to care about it? Well, not mainstream enough so why bother to provide the audience an insight of the stinking truth, right? Health problems, such as respiratory problems, chronic skin diseases, etc. faced by the workers never make it to the limelight, let alone the mental trauma they have to go through at their ‘workplace’.

Terms such as ‘occupational hazards’ used while describing the inhuman apathy are absolutely ineffective, as the whole situation is nothing less than an OCCUPATIONAL DEATH SENTENCE.  The issue that many journalists have been reluctant to speak about, Dr B. R. Ambedkar put out pretty forwardly, In India, 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.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated in his book ‘Karmayogi’ that manual scavenging is a “spiritual experience” (!) Well, to put it out more clearly, our dearest PM might consider the celebrity endorsements and photo-ops of ministers (most of the celebs and ministers belonging to upper castes) cleaning already cleaned places to be spiritual, but when the Valmiki women workers have to bend their lower backs as the brooms wear down, while their baskets leak and faeces of other people drip down their faces- that doesn’t seem very spiritual, does it?

Representational image.

The media world stands loose today controlled under the palms of politicians (preferably known as ‘Godi media’); it doesn’t really surprise us to see the anti-‘Dalit’ mindset the media holds. Even to this day, while thousands of workers are losing lives and have their hopes buried under the manholes, the media refuses to affirm that the basis of the occupation lies on the whole issue of caste itself.

When reporting about the primary, basic necessities of these people, it is done in the most superficial way ever. The rage that comes out while talking about the ‘much dangerous drugs problem’ of India – where does that disappear? Where does the intelligence behind all the theories of several scams and corruptions go while they start talking about solutions for the scavengers? The intellectuals do talk about introducing technology and machines in order to ban the manual scavenging system, but not even once anyone brings up- who will be working behind these machines?

whereas Gandhi was actually a firm believer in the ‘varna’ system and according to Gandhian Utopia, ‘Shudras’ were to continue as a servile class

The very first step towards a bright day for the scavengers should be the acknowledgement of the existing caste-based problem; the media is the fourth pillar of democracy and one cannot simply just ignore the fact that the pillar is almost broken. People around the world and nation need to be made aware of the existence of manual scavenging in present, and the duty lies on the shoulders of the media; the question remains will the pillar go on stooping down or will it stand and rebuild itself considering its duties?

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

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