Caste-ing away our waste

For centuries, a community has been socially delegated to dealing with human waste. How long will they continue to take human excreta, writes Shruthi. 
Neoliberal ideologies say that our hard work and intellect determine our social and economic status and that we deserve our social positions. In the Indian reality, however, thousands of people and structures act together to give us what we have. Starting from the sweeping of the roads I travel on, the guards at the gates of universities and offices I visit, to the cleaning and removal of my waste; be it food, paper and plastic, or human excreta, many of my needs are silently taken care of by people who are most often unknown and unseen by me.

It is also significant that these invisible hands come from very specific communities (lower caste, most often Dalit), and are often dominated by women, making it vital for us to see them as a part of a larger system that each one of us is responsible for.
Manual scavenging is one such activity, which broadly takes two forms. First is more of traditional practice, where dry latrines are cleaned by scooping up the faecal waste and carrying it in baskets on peoples’ heads. This custom, while no longer very predominant in metropolitan cities, is still prevalent in smaller cities, towns and in rural areas. The second, much more common in urban areas, is the cleaning of sewers, which requires people to enter into the drains to maintain and unclog them; a practice which is equally, if not more dirty and dangerous. The former is predominantly done by women, while the latter is more commonly done by men.

Bezwada Wilson (Pic Credits: Indian Express)

Manual scavenging is deeply and inextricably colonized by caste. Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay winner, a leading activist with the Safai Karamchari Andolan (a national movement for the eradication of manual scavenging, and their rehabilitation) and himself a member of the community wrote, “…this practice has shackled the whole community in deep insecurity so that many of us do not even realise that this disgusting work we are subjected to daily – this work of picking up human excrement – is, in fact, a symbol of feudal oppression. The mother-in-law feels very proud in giving a scavenging basket and broom as the first gift to her daughter-in-law, as part of her legacy… this oppression has continued from generation to generation, making victims of a whole community who, in fact, have no idea that caste-based hatred and the patriarchal structure have deliberately pushed them into this quagmire” (From the foreword of “Unseen” by Bhasha Singh, 2014).
Ritu Sinha, a sociology professor at Ambedkar University Delhi, talks of how people going into the drains have less than basic facilities, and then because their work is dirty we distance ourselves from them. Unfortunately, this has become normalized because it is a part of the caste system, and yet it is repeatedly justified as an occupation.
In 1993 the “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (prohibition) Act” was passed with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. This law was barely implemented and no convictions were made during the 20 years it was in force. In 2013, after several long years of protests and resistance, a new law was passed: The ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013,’ and in 2014, the Supreme Court passed a judgement based on a writ petition by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, which clearly says that state governments must “(i) fully implement and take appropriate action for non-implementation as well as violation of the provisions contained in the 2013 Act, (ii) to prevent deaths in sewer holes and septic tanks and make the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks a crime even in emergency situations and (iii) to give compensation of Rs.10 lakhs to families of all persons who have died in manholes and septic tanks since 1993.” Two-and-a-half years later, less than three per cent of such deaths have received compensation, and manual cleaning of drains and septic tanks continues unabated.
As per the writ petition, based on extensive research done across the country, the number of dry latrines had increased since 1993, and there were more than five lakh people, about 95 per cent of them Dalits, still working as manual scavengers. Nevertheless, we must remember that the problem is much deeper than quantifiable statistics such as the number of latrines or people employed in this job.
The problem is also an environmental one, a problem of the poor management of this waste. When we flush our toilets and forget about our waste, it has to be cleared away, and banning people from doing that doesn’t magically take away the problem. Anjor Bhaskar, an activist and research analyst, involved with waste pickers and waste disposal say, “If a pit latrine is filled or a sewage pipe is clogged, it has to be cleared. It just so happens that the caste system conveniently allows some to clean it up rather than others, but if not them, someone else would clean it, whether Dalit or not.” Furthermore, the alternatives to manual work so far have been much more capital intensive, requiring machines, equipment, and expensive gear. Since this is not considered economically viable, Anjor believes that solutions need to be found that will stop the need for cleaning of pipelines or latrines altogether. A decentralized system, with on-the-spot sanitation, short-term solutions or localized disposal through septic tanks and other environmentally clean solutions is required for the entire system to change, and for there to no longer be a need for the faeces to be transported. The problem boils down to our need to flush and forget, to our assumption that someone will always clean up after us.

This is not necessarily a conscious decision; it is something we’ve grown up with, something we’ve learned to take for granted. And yet, if we begin to change our mindsets, to begin to be more responsible, and more aware of the waste we generate (whether excreta or other waste), we can then begin to change the system that forces someone else to carry our shit around.
Beyond the environmental management of excreta, there is also the question of labour. In a poor country like India, if cheap labour is willing to work in less than ideal conditions, then that labour will be utilized. Why deploy capital, when you can manage without doing so? As Anjor says, “Inhuman conditions are always justified through employment and occupation.” He explains that even though manual scavenging has been banned, the government is the largest employer of manual scavengers, mostly as cleaners of manholes and sewage systems. However, instead of employing them directly, their labour is contractualized to private companies. This is done on the basis of the assumption that a public-private partnership optimizes efficiency when the government’s focus is employment rather than efficiency. While pit latrines were privately owned, the sewage system is publicly owned, and so, even if the work is contractualized, the government is also responsible. And yet, the moment the work has been contracted out, the government can wash its hands off of the problem, and doesn’t have to provide a minimum wage or other welfare benefits. Technically, then the whole system should be illegal.
Thanks to contractualizaion, the ban is making them increasingly invisible, removing their presence from the official government eye that sees only sewers and infrastructure as the back bone of the urban shit disposal system, forgetting that these people are in fact the tendons that hold them together and connect them to many of our homes. If their existence is not even recognized, how can they fight for compensation or rights?
Moreover, if a death occurs, convictions don’t happen because it is hard to directly place the blame on anyone. A case against the government can take several years to be resolved because they have un-ending reserves of money coming from our taxes! So, often, the blame gets displaced elsewhere. (A good example of this can be seen in the 2014 movie “Court,” directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, where the blame for the death of a sewage worker is placed on the activist who is fighting for Dalit rights, by claiming that he induced the worker to commit suicide!)
But what do invisiblizing people mean? How can we give them a voice and help them break out of these structures that make it so difficult for them to come out? Anjor Bhaskar believes that while it would be ideal if the entire waste water system itself changed, that seems unlikely, so what is important now is for there to be awareness of and sensitivity to the working conditions that people go through, as well as sensitivity to the environmental aspects of the waste disposal system. If the policy hasn’t made much of a difference, perhaps awareness will.
Equally and crucially important, is the education and empowerment of the manual scavenging community themselves. Groups like ‘Movement for Scavenger Community,’ started by young people from the manual scavenging community themselves, have created self-help groups for women and teach children reading, writing and computer skills in the evenings. Bezwada Wilson says that it has been internalized to such an extent, that even though nobody is happy in this job, they don’t realize that they can revolt and fight back (interview with Youth ki Awaaz, Jan 2016). Perhaps by making them aware, and providing education and support systems that will allow them to revolt or make changes in their own lives, this internalization will be purged.
Moreover, when these communities are educated and given the opportunity to move out of such occupations, other castes will be forced to deal with the waste. This would help delink the work from caste and those belonging to higher castes would demand better conditions. Anjor says that unfortunately, unlike with rag pickers, manual scavenging can’t be solved through economics since there is no value associated with excreta. It needs to be delinked from caste in some other way.

A woman scooping the human excreta. (Pic Credits: Safai Karamchari Andolan)

We have to begin viewing manual scavenging as the systemic issue that it is, rather than looking at it as the burden of a few. We are all contributing, we are all ignorant in our own ways, and finally it boils down to how much we really care about the waste our own bodies expel. If not the Dalit community today, someone else will do it tomorrow. As long as we don’t find efficient, local solutions for the management of our waste, we will always have a system that deems someone low enough to clean our waste for us instead. When we start doing the right thing environmentally, we will also be doing the right thing socially.

Author: Shruthi N. Jagadeesh

She completed her Bachelor’s in Social Sciences and Humanities from Ambedkar University, Delhi. Currently, she is working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. She is deeply interested in studying the relationship between society and ecology.




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