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Cows, corpses or carcasses... : Sacredness ends here

Arun Kumar, a municipal employee. Bijay Sindhur, a freelance disposal expert. Santosh Deep, a former bodyguard to the Khariar Raja. All have done jobs society needs but will not ever acknowledge. Noted journalist P. SAINATH writes about a section of dalits who face exclusion within their own spectrum.


"WHEN the holy cow is alive, it is divine. We are less than the cows. The moment that animal dies, it ceases to be sacred. Then, those who worshipped it while it was alive will not touch it. They are desperate to get rid of it. You would think that if something was sacred, it would remain sacred always. But no. At that point, they remember us. Everybody comes down to earth in death."

Welcome to the Ghasi basti. The community worst off lies here in the Notified Area Council of Khariar. The NAC cannot function without their services. But those remain invisible. Quite a few Ghasis do jobs that society hates to acknowledge: they dispose of dead human bodies and animal carcasses.

Who are these people others cannot do without but never wants to talk about? Who are these people almost never compensated for the risks they run? Who are these people who face exclusion even within the dalit spectrum? Why is a pada of so many sanitation workers marked by such squalor and decay?

Arun Kumar is a sweeper, with the NAC. He is up early each morning. "From 3 to 5 a.m., there is road cleaning and sweeping. From 7 to 9 a.m., garbage removal. Then there is another round of work from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. And, of course, we might get called for any other job that comes up."

The "other jobs" come up often in Arun Kumar's life. He can be called 15 times a month to clear a carcass. "This could be any domestic animal." He does the job without gloves or any other protection against the hazards of his line of work.

Arun is also on call with the police. "Sometimes the police station sends for us. Or they inform the NAC that there is a lawaaris (unidentified body) lying around that has to be disposed of. So three or four of us set out to deal with it. First, we reach the body for the post mortem. After the medical attendants are done and have sewn up the body, we take it away and bury it."

Where? "That could be up to four km away. It has to be far from a residential area."

How do they carry it? A body is not easy to handle?

"Ah, yes. That gets to be a problem. We only have a trolley. Now that is obviously not big enough for the body. So we have to try and fold it up a bit. But if rigor mortis has set in, it is not easy. So we place some bamboos and a sack across the trolley's edge. That gives it a kind of extension. We push the body into this contraption and take it away. Then we bury it."

The police can be grateful. When their job's done, they hand the men a chit to the local sharab dookan saying they should be given a free shot of country liquor.

Arun Kumar is one of the lucky ones. He has got a regular job. Many others in this basti do work like this without a stable income.

Rajula Deep, now in her fifties, has cleaned two police stations daily for the past 30 years. She has recently got a pay hike. Now she gets Rs. 200 a month. Janaki Rani cleans and clears the post office every day. She probably envies Rajula the hike.

Bijoy Sindhur's work is even tougher. In his early twenties, though he looks a lot older, he survives on disposal work. "I have been doing this utava kaam - lifting of carcasses - since I was a child helping my parents. And on my own for nearly 10 years. The last cow I lifted was a few weeks ago."

"A mahajan had taken his dead cow on a bullock cart and dumped it some 15 km away. I found it, skinned it and wrapped the meat in the hide." Sindhur had to work his way home, struggling to balance the huge package on his bicycle. Selling meat is part of his line. It is an important source of income in the Ghasi basti. "In the mohallah, I cut the meat into four pieces which I was able to sell for Rs. 20. For the chamada (hide), I got Rs. 130."

"There is a little money in the bones. But in this case, the bones were still unfit to be taken out. The bones have to dry, you see. So I had to leave and go back for them later."

That can be tough. "I have to search four hours for the bones sometimes. Usually a hunar (hyena) makes off with parts of what remains. But it mostly strews the bones within a two-km radius. Sometimes you find them, sometimes you do not. It is a chance. The best bones fetch Rs. 50-70. The best deal on the hide is Rs. 150."

The bones go to a merchant who has a monopoly on the business in this region. The hide has a slightly wider market, but often goes to the same man. At his place, the bones are sold by auction. Sometimes, merchants come down from Raipur for it.

Who called Sindhur to the spot when that animal died? "Nobody. Sometimes you get a tip-off that someone has disposed of the body of an animal. I also find them myself because every morning, I get up and cycle around looking for carcasses". That could mean big distances. "Sometimes 30 to 40 km. Sometimes a bit less."

Can he really do this each day of his life? Veteran of the trade, Santosh Deep, interrupts: "You may notice he has got a stomach attached to him. We all do, incidentally. That is how we can do this each day of our lives."

Sindhur, who dropped out of standard IV, describes himself as "a devout follower of Shivji." He has his parents, a wife and an eight-month-old child to provide for. If everything goes right for him on such a deal, he can make around Rs. 200 on it. Once in three or four weeks, if lucky. Yet, he is not deemed to be below the poverty line.

"People do this work because they have no options," says Dhiru Patra. He is one of the pada's educated young men, having passed his matriculation. Patra ran for NAC councillor and lost by just 13 votes. "It is terribly unsanitary. Some of us tried stopping this. And we still want to. But we did not realise how desperate people are about it. It is the only work they get. There are very few who qualify for any kind of government jobs at all. Education here is a mess."

The pada's school has seen a record number of teachers. "Yet, it has never had a chair or table for any of them. The first thing a teacher posted here does is to work towards a transfer." That can be arranged for a fee.

"Three teachers are required, but there are just two. Neither is permanent. The teachers have worked it out so that they come 'on deputation'. The same person can return more than once 'on deputation'. Only Scheduled Caste teachers stay any length of time." The school building is just a year old. Before that, it ran for six years in quarters loaned to it by local journalist Bijay Sahis.

"People need the disposal jobs," they tell us in the basti. "And the sale of meat is also a source of income here."

Is there a market for the meat? In the Ghasi basti, this produces derisive laughter. Even Dhiru Patra and his friends cannot help smiling. There is a torrent of scalding comments from all around.

"Most people are "silent" meat eaters. A lot of vegetarianism is just for show. Most in Khariar eat meat but on the sly. They buy it from here, so we know. Whatever meat we sell, is cheaper than elsewhere. People from the Church, from the Mission hospital, even so-called vegetarians, all buy meat from us one time or another. Maybe, of course, many do not know that it comes from here. But buy it they do."

"Most of this country is non-vegetarian in this fashion."

"Doctors have told some people in Khariar to eat meat for health reasons. A few brahmins eat meat for reasons like that. There is a brahmin peon who buys meat on the sly from our mohallah. This same man refused a blood transfusion when his life was in danger some years ago. Because the donor was a dalit. His health worsened. Now he eats meat on the sly and says all are bhai bhai."

Does this include beef? "You will not get beef openly in the bazaar or hotels, but many people eat it. It is much cheaper. Desi chicken or mutton can cost Rs. 80 a kilo. Pork, as much as Rs. 60. But beef? You can three kg for Rs. 10. Do not believe all the sanctimonious humbug you hear outside. A lot of people eat it who sing the virtues of vegetables."

"Our colony contributes to everybody's comforts in several ways. Sanitation, drain clearance, carcass disposal, food, cheapest labour, night soil work. They just never acknowledge us. They will not let us improve our lives. That is all."

Few know this better than Santosh Deep does.

Now in his sixties, Deep was "involved since childhood in disposing of carcasses. I can remember the days when a chamada (hide) fetched Rs. 3." But he tried to get out of the profession. With some success to begin with.

"For four years, I was bodyguard to the Raja of Khariar," says the acerbic old man. "I had to stand there with a bandook (rifle) and protect him." That must have been exciting. "Not at all. It was incredibly boring. I was given a uniform and Rs. 3 a month. All I ever did in four years was to stand at his gate. Caste ruled in the palace and I was never allowed inside. People would come to see the Raja saheb. The routine was always the same. I would ask who they were. Then I would say: 'He is resting. Go away.' That is all the damn job was. Who was the raja anyway? He had no business to rule. In his house, he was a raja. In my house I am raja."

So he never used the rifle? "Are you joking? We were never trained and I barely knew which side was which. We were there just to scare people off. They never once gave us a bullet to load in it, anyway." Perhaps they were not sure who Santosh Deep would shoot if they did.

"When the Khariar State was merged in 1956, the job ended. I went to the Bhilai Steel Plant. I got trained and worked as a dresser at the BSP hospital for four years at Rs. 40 a month."

There was to be no happy ending. The abusive behaviour of the doctors ensured that. "One day, the doctor ordered me to clean the paan a woman had spat on the wall. Just because of my caste. I said this was not my job. I was a dresser. The he said 'in that case, you had better resign.' I did. And came back to the job of collecting and disposing of the carcasses of cattle and selling the meat."

It is getting late in the basti. The sheer extent of its alcohol problem is now on display. Yet, within this environment, spirit and hope endure.

"My child will get educated if I have to beg," says Bijoy Sindhur. "I lost out in life, being unable to afford school. This will not happen to my son."

"With all its problems, I prefer today to the Raja's time," says Santosh Deep. "Now I can ktalk to you in this relaxed way even if he came next to us. In the old days you would have to stand and scrape and bow and cringe before him. Now, who cares?"

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