There are those who do not wish to see. Bhasha Singh, author of “Unseen”, shares some horrifying truths about manual scavenging in India

It is a word that would be printed with the help of asterisks or sundry other symbols. And I would not be well looked upon if I used it in my writing — s***t. What has become of serious journalistic writing, we would say. But it is okay, it seems, if thousands of people across the country, some 98 per cent of them women, pick up this unprintable refuse with ungloved hands, carry it in buckets or baskets on their heads or at their side, and dump it at a safe distance from ‘people like us’ — the civilised, the educated, the daily bathers. Bhasha Singh’s book “Unseen: The Truth about India’s Manual Scavengers” makes for searing reading. For many of us living in urban centres, it might come as a surprise how widespread is the practice of manual scavenging taking place on a daily basis across India today, a ‘job’ reserved for one community of people caught in a vicelike grip of the caste system and firmly maintained by an apathetic, unseeing, ‘democratic’ society. Neither the National Capital, nor the big metros, none is free of this abominable human rights violation. But you know what they say — “none so blind…”.

Does the existence of manual scavenging, that too performed only by a particular caste of people, not amount to a crime against humanity? This is not a debate often heard. There are other things to debate, including the falling price of the rupee, India’s nuclear capabilities and foreign direct investment. After all, we are a superpower in waiting. And ‘waiting’ is the operational word. ‘Waiting’ is what India’s manual scavengers have been doing ever since 1993, when the law prohibiting the practice was first passed in Parliament.

Bhasha’s original book in Hindi, “Adrishya Bharat”, came out in 2012. Along with the English translation by Reenu Talwar, it has been updated and slightly enlarged.

“There are new chapters in it, like the chapter on Indian Railways — that’s entirely new,” says Bhasha. “I have updated also.” The chapter on Delhi, for example, has been updated because Meena’s story has, thankfully, progressed. “Now she is running an e-rickshaw, which is supported by the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA),” says Bhasha, adding, “She has not got any help from the Delhi or the Central Government!”

Also, says the author, she has discussed the new law that came into effect from December 6, 2013 — the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & Their Rehabilitation Act 2013.

This portion, she says, “deals with the new laws, its flaws and its implications, how the new law has been able to come in force, what are the factors behind the new law.”

Reading “Unseen” is deeply distressing. The author herself often mentions the horrendous nature of the experience while she journeyed across 11 states meeting manual scavengers — different in language, dress, customs and even in their attitude to the hope of liberation, but united by the dehumanising nature of their work and the caste-enforced blight on the entire community. And continually the realisation comes to her of the greater hell that the manual scavengers experience, bound to do this work day in and day out, come rain, shine, summer or winter, come illness or pregnancy — yes, even pregnancy. And age is no bar here. In fact the people employed in this work say it is better to start young so that you get used to it. So where do we turn our civilised heads when the author meets a young man of 23 who has been doing this work for the past 15 years? It doesn’t take a lot of maths to gauge the reality.

It is a shaming enough fact that the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed by Parliament in 1993 — long after colour televisions were commonly available and the debate on economic reforms was in full swing. But Bhasha began her research in 2003, full 10 years later, to find that most manual scavengers had not heard of the law and rehabilitation had not reached them. And faced with complete social and government apathy, the Safai Karmachari Andolan had to file a Public Interest Litigation for implementation of the law. The wheels of justice grind as they grind, and the irony of a PIL asking for a law already passed to be implemented goes as just another irony. Knowing all this, one wonders whether there was anything heartening at all in the updates made by Bhasha to the English version.

“Yes, many things happened. The most remarkable thing is the new law. If you remember, in 2010 and 2011 also, the Government of India gave a statement in Parliament that there is no manual scavenging in India. They said we are closing the scheme because there is no prevalence of manual scavenging. So from there to 2014, the government was forced to not only accept that manual scavenging exists, but also to enact a new law in which the definition is enlarged. In the ’93 Act only dry toilets (toilets without water source) were considered, but now it deals with septic tank cleaning, open drain cleaning, pit cleaning and to some extent they deal with the tracks or the sewer line cleaning also, not directly as manual scavenging, but they at least discuss this issue,” says Bhasha.

She emphasises, “For the first time in Indian history, these issues have been discussed in a law. Why? It happened only, and only, because of the movement from the community itself. Because they had no political say, no party took this as an issue, no civil society outside the manual scavengers. Because that is the very strange story of caste, how it moves.”

In the social or civil sector there are very few organisations working on this issue, she notes. “Either some people or organisations want toilets as a business — that has nothing to do with the curse of manual scavenging.” The change is being heralded largely by the women, who have declared they will no longer indulge in this inhuman practice, will not allow their children to enter the same line and are claiming a life of dignity. They are taking action by demolishing the dry toilets (in themselves illegal, but when did that make a difference?) and burning their refuse baskets as a strong symbol.

This is the spirit, says Bhasha, that forced the government’s National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi to come out with a statement three years ago that led to the new law. “But you see how much time it takes!”

She points out another enormous irony: “The Government of India has sanctioned Rs.100 crores, from the last two budgets (2011-12 and 2012-13) for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and elimination of this practice, but you find strangely the whole year they have not spent this money. The whole of the 100 crores lapsed. Why? Because they said there is no manual scavenger who is coming forward to take this [help]. The government said they want to do a national survey of manual scavengers. But at the end of the year they said they can’t do the survey because they don’t have a suitable agency that is ready to do a survey of manual scavengers.”

And yet, she notes, the SKA and other organisations had submitted a list of 15,000 manual scavengers with photographic evidence. “There are women standing with the broom, a woman cleaning the dry toilet, cleaning the human excreta.”

This is not even a complete list since it included only those who agreed to be photographed, but surely the concerned agencies could have used it as a starting point. “But you see the apathy is so deep in the bureaucracy and in the political system that none of them has got a single paisa from the government, though the schemes are run, and the money is lapsing! That pains me.”

On the other hand there is hope as some of the women are becoming catalysts for change within their community. In Delhi, Meena is an example. Though even the Scheduled Caste Corporation refused her application for a loan so she could buy an autorickshaw, she is saving money from her e-rickshaw earnings to accomplish the task herself. At a stone’s throw from the Capital are Ghaziabad and Meerut. “Those women are selling clothes, rearing pigs, goats.”

Government organs like the Indian Railways and municipal corporations can get away with manual scavenging because most of the sanitation workers in India are on contract, points out Bhasha. This fig leaf, along with deep seated casteist sentiments, comes in the way of eradicating the evil. Otherwise how could a country that sends rockets into space not be able to figure out how to make trains whose toilets don’t spill their contents onto the tracks? It’s the same nation whose capital city’s world class metro system has an unmanned ticket checking system but still requires human beings to immerse themselves in sewers when they get clogged. Is this how superpowers are built?