Trigger warning: Caste-based oppression
One of the finest examples of how the caste system is still prevalent in India is seeing people go down the sewers or dry latrines to collect human waste and then carry it over their heads. Yes, manual scavenging persists.
Manual scavenging dates back a long time. British introduced the system of municipalities and needed people to clean them up. The lowest sections of the lowest caste were to be employed for the job of cleaning public toilets. But the caste system has been present in our roots before this. I think we’ve taken the saying ‘never forget your roots’ very seriously.
The Aamir Khan starrer ‘Lagaan’ (2001) is the finest example of India’s broad culture and division. The movie shows an oppressed caste individual named Kachra, which in itself means garbage. The movie shows how an oppressed caste person is perceived in society. However, the movie shows the main character making it possible for everyone in the village, irrespective of their caste, to accept Kachra in the team. It is Kachra who, during the cricket match, becomes an integral part of the team. In the end, when five runs are needed of a single ball, Kachra is on strike. The dialogue there is – everyone is dependent upon you, Kachra. It is you and only you who can do something.
While growing up, the most common thing we hear and understand is that women are the backbone of society or that the oppressed class is the backbone of the society. The farmers are the backbone of society, and last, but not least, labourers/workers are the backbones of society. We change the backbone of society as per our needs and convenience. And for the explanation part, it is evident that without them, our community will fall.
Manual Scavengers are known by many names like bhangis, Sikaliars, Balmiki but are known for only one work. Women have to go house to house to clean the toilets whereas men do work like going down the sewers. There have been many cases where workers have denied going to work but have faced violence, social injustice, or exclusion from the village. Most of the scavengers do the job because that’s the only option that they have left and their ancestors used to do this.
During the 2014 campaigns, Narendra Modi highlighted the value of having a modernized India. He said that building toilets are more important than building temples. Thus, the then government came up with many schemes to eradicate this practice. Yet, according to the National Survey conducted in 2018 covering 170 districts and 18 states, more than 50,000 scavengers were still doing their job.
There have been provisions for the Dalits to get a job opportunity, but it is a challenge for a manual scavenger. Scavengers are mostly Dalits. We are a divided nation. Even our caste system has further subdivisions.
This section of society is primarily neglected, but the question that who will do these jobs if not them is often quoted by authorities. There is an urgent need to exercise machines for this task. Even if the scavengers are given safety gear, this work cannot be considered a job.
We have been dominated by the upper castes for centuries. Caste should not decide what job suits us best.