Bare Hands: A struggle for dignity of labour

 

By-Zeeshan Kaskar, Karan Anand, Akhilesh Nagari, Eisha Hussain and Tahira Noor Khan:

These lines from Langton Hughes’, ‘The Black Man Speaks’ exhibit how democracy, which promises equality and dignity to every citizen, consists of groups that are marginalized and face continued oppression.

This holds true for the community of manual scavengers in India. Most of the manual scavengers largely belong to the historically oppressed and marginalized Dalit community. The Dalits have also been discriminated against for being “untouchables”. Though untouchability and caste discrimination remain banned by the Constitution of India, the discrimination faced by dalits, has insidiously crept through to the modern society. People from the dalit community have been restricted to the dehumanizing profession of manual scavenging and are subsequently alienated and ghettoised.

In recent years, the government came up with the Swach Bharat Mission, a scheme which claims to clean up the streets, roads, and infrastructure of India by 2019. The central government has spent around Rs 530 crore over its publicity in the last three years but the promises don’t include any relief for the manual scavengers. An overwhelming majority of sanitation workers in India are still contractually employed, wherein they aren’t paid any minimum fixed wages, and often had to work under the hazardous conditions without any safety measures.

“Our kids are asked to sit separately in the school and are bullied because of our profession,” tells Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger. He lives in a neighbourhood where most people belong to his caste. He says other professions are closed for him and the people of his community. “People refrain from giving us any other job because of our caste.”

“Our kids are asked to sit separately in the school and are bullied because of our profession,” tells Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger. He lives in a neighbourhood where most people belong to his caste. He says other professions are closed for him and the people of his community. “People refrain from giving us any other job because of our caste.”

In 1993 The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed and in 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed to stop the employment of people in the degrading job of cleaning human excreta. Though the government employed sanitation workers do not have to enter manholes anymore, those illegally employed by private contractors have no respite. Despite countless deaths of manual scavengers, not a single person has been convicted under these acts.

The government’s apathy towards the issue reflects in the discrepant budgetary allocation. While in 2013-14, the Budget Allocation for manual scavengers was Rs.557 crores, it has seen a drastic plunge to Rs. 5 crores in the 2017-18 budget.

Manual scavenging, apart from being dehumanizing, is also a lethal profession. In 2017 alone, more than 300 people died due to it as stated by National Safai Karamchari Andolan. Manual scavengers are exposed to high concentration of poisonous gases causing various health issues like hepatitis, cholera, meningitis, typhoid, and cardiovascular problems. Many die because of asphyxiation in the manholes.

According to a survey conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, around 20,500 people have been identified as manual scavengers across 18 states. These figures have been contested by NGOs and other organisations for the welfare of manual scavengers and thus, considered to be grossly underestimated. The National Commission for Safai Karamchari, on the contrary, reports that there are more than 30 lakh manual scavengers and one person dies every five days because of manual scavenging.




Manual Scavengers are from the caste groups which are relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and are confined to a livelihood which is perceived as deplorable or deemed to be too menial by the higher caste groups. The caste designated profession further reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or untouchable and thus perpetuates their misery.

An absurd misery

Entangled within the web of society, Virender, a 40-year-old manual scavenger, shares his community’s agony. He talks about the discrimination they face every day, how their children are coerced to sit separately in school and bullied for being born into a manual scavenger’s family. His voice trembles with the years of disappointment both from the society and the government, as he explains his predicament.

While cleaning the gutter, with his hands immersed in the muck, he said with a smile, “..sometimes while cleaning the sewage we come across such disgusting things, that it  becomes impossible for us to eat.”

The sight of him cleaning the shit is one rattled with an absurd misery; the longing for something seemingly impossible, nostalgia for what never was and the regret for not being something else.

In a dim-lit room with walls smeared with a quaint blue, Virender took a chair to sit and started eating. He remembered his co-workers and friends who lost their lives while cleaning the gutters. He says that if it were up to him, he would straight away leave this profession. But in order to survive and provide his children quality education, if he has to work as a manual scavenger, he would.

Virender and many others like him start their days with some booze and smoke. They explain that if it were not for intoxication, they would never be able to convince themselves to get in the gutter brimming with human excreta and muck. The alcohol helps them fathom the courage to face the pungent smell that welcomes them in the sewer.

Even though the government has banned the act of manual scavenging, the discrimination against those still involved or previously involved in the profession doesn’t end there. While Dharampal, a permanently employed sanitation worker with the government organ doesn’t have to enter the manholes anymore, he has still not managed to escape the discrimination perpetuated by the caste system. Most people still don’t let him come near their houses. They despise his presence as if the squalor they produce is stuck to the bodies of Dharampal and others like him.

An old manual scavenger waiting for work on a wintry morning 
2 PM: Waiting

The irony of being Rani

Rani (literally translates to queen), a 35-year-old woman, has the most ironic name. With eyes filled with tears, she recounts a life full of hardships and short-lived happiness.

In a dingy shanty, with the haunting absence of her husband, Rani lives with three young children. Her husband, Anil, was a manual scavenger and died on 14 September 2018, because of asphyxiation while cleaning a sewer in West Delhi.

“My life has become unbearable without Anil. I constantly think of immersing myself in mother Ganges (a Holy river according to Hindu mythology). But something pulls me back. Maybe it’s the thought of my three young children who have nobody except me.”

Rani feels that if there were no manholes, her husband wouldn’t have died. She hopes that all manholes are closed and no other woman has to face the same fate as she did.

Rani’s story echoes the wail of a hapless woman resonating the agonizing pain of the life of a manual scavenger’s family, her four-month-old son passed away after fighting his last battle with pneumonia, and soon after that blow, within six days Anil passed away, leaving Rani with her three children alone at the mercy of God. 

The Tyranny of Caste

Caste discrimination is the Achilles’ Heels of the Indian society. Dr. B R Ambedkar, the writer of the Indian Constitution and the one who coined the term “Dalit”(oppressed)—has compared caste discrimination in India with that of the discrimination against Jews under Hitler. Caste is a social structure which permits the domination of one caste (a social status in the ‘divinely ordained’ social hierarchy in the Hindu society) by the other on the basis of hereditary. Simply put, it means a perpetual domination of one caste on the other.

According to Stanley Rice, the origin of untouchability is to be found in the unclean and filthy occupations of the untouchables. The Dalits have been forced to clean human excreta, burn dead bodies and remove animals’ corpses. This makes them ‘impure’ in the eyes of the rest of the society. They have been subjected to ostracisation owing to their profession.

In a caste-based society, one doesn’t choose their profession but is restricted to it.“How can one feel proud of cleaning the worm-filled, stench-producing shit of millions every day?” Bezwada Wilson writes in his foreword to Ramaswamy book, “India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their work.”

With dirt coated hands, eyes longing for respect, the gaze of a scavenger reflects the irony of a society which seems to inflict the burden and misery of scavenging collectively upon him but at the same time looks at him as ‘impure.’ Kailash, Virender and Dharampal are amongst few belonging to the community of manual scavengers, whose profession historically has been to clean the shit produced by other humans. The predicament is that even today there are millions who are forced into scavenging. Their dignity and life are of little importance to the government and society alike, that have comfortably turned a blind eye towards the agony of manual scavenging.

On the other side of the border

Tehseen Abbas


Manual scavenging is not an attractive career choice but for some in Pakistan it is still the only option. 
“I remember my mother’s words, she said that we can only eat when we clean the waste of others,” said  Akram Masih, who was 15 when his mother told him that he would spend his life cleaning blocked sewage lines across the city. 

Masih is now 25 years-old but he remembers each day he spent cleaning blocked drain lines of Saddar town in the bustling port city of Karachi.

In Pakistan, such jobs are reserved for Chuhras or the lowest ranking members of the minority Christian community.  He lives in Essa Nagri, a predominant Christian neighborhood, with a family of six. He makes Rs.800 or roughly $6 per day. “Rainy days were always the worst I had to do extra work to make the rainwater follow,”  Masih said.

Like Masih, so many others are forced to clean the human waste across Pakistan. 
Saqib Masih, 27, is another manual scavenger who has worked in Karachi for more than a decade.  “We often find it difficult to find any other job in the city,” he said. Manual scavenging involves not only cleaning manholes and blocked sewerage lines but also stepping into drains and septic tanks. All of this is a health hazard, according to medical experts. 

Dr. Hassan Auj, a medical officer at University of Karachi said that scavengers are constantly exposed to germs. “Their (scavengers) workplace is unsafe and terrible it definitely has a negative impact on their health,” the medic added. “Most of the scavengers have no protection which makes their job more difficult,” Dr. Auj said.

Like India, manual scavenging in Pakistan is also restricted to particular castes — primarily Christians. Public advertisement clearly seek members from the Christian community for such jobs.

Despite little hope of change, Jawaid Michael, a Christian social activist, encourages members of his community to send their children to school. Michael believes it is about time the government protect members of his community. “The government needs to get serious about enacting laws that ban manual scavenging and assist the affected caste communities.”

A news report quoting World Watch Monitor said that minority representation in sanitation work in Pakistan is above 80 percent. According to the report, 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christian.
About 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christian. And 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christian.

Iqbal Masih, who is responsible for cleaning the sewage lines of Federal B Area block 20 said that he and others have complained so many times about the unsafe sites where they are being sent to work. “We never receive safety training; neither we have safety equipment nor do we get any precautions,” he said. “The only response we get is ‘do your jobs or quit’,” he added.

A report by Minority Rights Commission published in 2012 said that at least 70 Christians have died in Pakistan since 1988 while cleaning sewerage pipelines.
A number of Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia, have successfully tackled the problem of sewage management and technology is being used to do such jobs.

While Pakistan struggles to provide equality. People like Akram Masih continue to do their job in tough and inhumane conditions. Masih recalls he had no option but to be a manual scavenger. “There was poverty and I had to feed our family. So there was no other option for me – I covered my nose and started doing it,” he said with a quiver in this voice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s