On Zero Discrimination Day, we must look at how caste based discriminations sustain in the most horrifying form of manual scavenging.
Earlier this month, industrialist Ratan Tata shared a heart-wrenching video titled “Mera Baba Desh Chalata Hai (my father runs the country)”. The video, which has garnered millions of views and empathies, showcases a young boy reciting a poem at his school and laying bare a vile truth of Indian society – manual scavenging, and the parlous life of sanitation workers. It was released to announce Tata Trust’s new initiative ‘Mission Garima’, for the upliftment of sanitation workers and also gave the message of easing their lives through segregating waste into dry waste and wet waste.
It is not the first time that the concerns regarding manual scavenging have been raised. Realizing manual scavenging as a direct threat to human dignity, government schemes and programmes and civil society initiatives like ‘Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan’ have been working to end manual scavenging. Legislative efforts such as the Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955) prohibits forcing anyone to practice manual scavenging and; Manual Scavengers Act (2013) seeks to reinforce this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging in all forms and ensures the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.
But the ‘stink’ of manual scavenging lingers on, with caste, untouchability and stigma further intensifying its stench.
Historically, caste was the basis for social and economic organization and is hereditary in nature. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar termed “Caste as a notion and a state of mind” and thus discriminations based on the caste system were shunned and every Indian citizen was guaranteed liberty and equality. Yet after years of India being a republic, there is some Gangabai, Kailash, Rekha or Vineet*, who are still suffering the pangs of being a Dalit and are obliged to undertake the ‘polluted’ work of manual scavenging – the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.
In India, between 2017 and late 2018, one sanitation worker died every five days, making manual scavenging one of the most hazardous jobs, along with being unlawful and inhuman. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India estimated that there are 9.6 million dry latrines that are still being cleaned manually by people belonging to the Scheduled Castes. The figure excludes cleaning of septic tanks and open defecation from roads and other areas. Poverty, low wages, limited access to education and land resources, social exclusion and poor health due to direct contact with obnoxious fumes and harmful bacteria, perpetuate their already impoverished situation. Some manual scavengers believe their treatment to be sanctioned by Gods and think of manually cleaning toilets as their ‘jagir (estate)’ or something they are entitled to. This kind of assumption of subjugation and exploit is unnerving and not at all acceptable in a democratic setup. Even when some manual scavengers succeed in escaping this atrocity despite threats and backlash, they still experience the sharp scrutiny of people around them who view them as ‘filthy’. The panchayats, local schools and criminal justice system act as biased entities and play a role in further deepening these divides.
Gandhi since 1901 had talked about the indignified nature of manual scavenging that shames us as humans, who allow it to happen. Much stride has been made since then but still it goes on in many parts of the country, especially in states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Without sanitation workers, the proper functioning of entire cities can be hampered. Thus, concerted efforts need to be made to guarantee the respect and appreciation our sanitation workers deserve. Vigorous state intervention, in the form of offering rehabilitation and alternative livelihoods, mechanizations, stringent laws and their effective implementation, funding for safety gear and other necessities is required. All these should be supplemented with a transformation of attitudes towards the sanitation workers through awareness programmes in which private bodies like the Tata Group, NGOs etc. can play a part. The element of caste based discrimination that is deeply entrenched into the concept of sanitation and related work must be disjointed from them. Individuals must also segregate their waste, as one should be responsible for one’s waste themselves.
Dr. Ambedkar quoted, “Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can affect people.” We, as humans cannot be indifferent about such a potent issue that affects millions of people and endangers the individuality and dignity of a citizen. Manual scavenging is a dirty truth of our society which feeds on a person’s worth and right to live. Many dangers threaten the existence of our nation, but it is only when we come together as equal and unified, do we stand a chance to maintain the sanctity of our benevolent motherland.
*- Names used do not connote any person living or dead.
Image Credits: Shaikh Azizur Rahman for The Guardian