I have always abhorred untouchability and the manual scavenging twinned with it. But I have seldom felt so shamed and angered as I did on reading Bhasha Singh’s deeply moving and well-researched book, Unseen: The Truth About India’s Manual Scavengers. Untouchability and all its attendant manifestations stand abolished under the Constitution. Yet the scourge, officially ended by turning a Nelson’s eye to its stark existence, remains widespread, though possibly diminished, only to be routinely “abolished” every few years.
The charade is played out at every level — social, political, administrative — and across the board through clever definitions, devious legal exceptions, obtuse administrative procedures and rank dishonesty in pretending that that which is, is not. Manual scavengers are left to clean the stinking mess and wait for deliverance. For how long?
The prime minister prioritised toilets, especially for schools and the girl child, in his Independence Day address and set out a timetable. But manual scavenging goes beyond building or converting dry latrines, and must embrace an integrated system of sanitation and water supply, treatment and disposal that must cover septic tanks and the Indian Railways, which scatter waste nationwide. The essential problem is not money, technology or even management. It is the failure to prioritise, the absence of social will and the hidebound remnants of caste among those yet to emerge into the modern age.
According to Singh, even with the passage of the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, there were 2.6 million insanitary latrines in India (2011 Census) and 7,94,390 manual scavengers. In her investigations, spread over nine states, Singh found that it is mostly women who engage in this loathsome task as they can more easily access the dry latrines at the back of houses, through the zenana quarters. The number of houses they service is, in some areas, collectively known as a jagirdari. The larger the jagirdari, the more these wretched people can afford to eat. But many keep off yellow dal as it reminds them of the excrement they clean.
Much as I admire him, Gandhi justified, even extolled, manual scavenging by equating cleanliness with godliness. He did immense harm to Hindu society and social reform by propagating strange theories that tended to perpetuate caste. Such antiquarian notions persist. In his book, Karmayog, published in 2007, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, likened “valmikis (manual scavengers)” to temple priests in the service of god through society. A Times of India reproduction of this text was translated and published in Tamil, causing a huge uproar among Tamil Dalits, who resented scavenging being called a “spiritual experience”. Five thousand copies of the book were withdrawn but the underlying idea was not rejected. More recently, a Gujarat state-sponsored report, “Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat” (May 2013) described caste discrimination as a matter of “perceptions”. Obviously, perceptions differ radically.
Manual scavenging is practised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians who have been bound to this inhuman practice by cruel necessity as well as both state and social lethargy. A number of associations and institutions, Bindeshwar Pathak’s Sulabh Shauchalaya movement among them, are fighting to end this scourge and to expose official and judicial indifference to the law and the constitutional right to dignity. Barring a section of the Left, most political parties and cadres are indifferent. Parliament has turned its face away rather than confronting this evil until it is eradicated. The Centre for Science and Environment has researched and written on water and sanitation issues, city by city. The data is there; the will is lacking and India, to its shame, ranks very near the bottom of the international league in performance. The burden of ill-health and disease cast on the nation by insanitation is crippling. And our priorities have been woefully wrong.
Focusing on ending open defecation through building toilets cannot, by itself, solve the problem. A chain of structures, facilities and processes has to be put in place, adequately funded and monitored at a number of levels. This will have to be combined with an unremitting campaign of social education to fight caste and the sanction it gives to such degrading practices. Uniforms and common dining help create a sense of equality, as do sports and team work. Manual scavengers must also be trained in skills and given rehabilitation loans.
Few know the root meaning of the word “rehabilitate”. It entails an endeavour to invest in dignity. What a noble concept, going far beyond the tawdry definition that prevails. The best places to begin the campaign for bhangi mukti are homes and schools, where attitudes are shaped. The media too can play a positive role and has done so on occasion. But, alas, human waste and the degrading trade of manual scavenging seldom make news.
The writer is a former editor of ‘The Indian Express’