Even as they slog to keep the Kumbh Mela ground clean, the Mehtars live in deplorable conditions and are paid peanuts for their hard work
It is often the case that people who provide a particular service to others are themselves deprived of it the most. The 7,000-8,000 members of the Mehtar community belonging to the Bhangi caste, who have travelled to the Sangam this year from adjoining districts of Pratapgarh, Kausambhi, Banda, Fatehpur and Chitrakoot underline this paradox.
The Mehtars, traditionally restricted to sweeping and manual scavenging, slog to keep clean the vast area of the Sangam during the Maha Kumbh Mela. However, they are compelled to dwell in the most unhygienic conditions — in most cases adjacent to drains — and with nothing but refugee-styled tents for cover. Most of these tents are in tatters.
“What else can we say, we are like the worms that crawl in the dirt” says Ashok, a Mehtar. The dirt, pools of stagnant water and excreta he is referring to, besides being un-aesthetic, are also perfect breeding grounds for illness.
As the mercury dips, they struggle to keep themselves warm. The administration does not provide them any wood. Instead, they have to search for it, sometimes even pay for it. When no wood is accessible or it is not dry enough, they use the gathered garbage for bonfire.
While working, the sweepers are divided into teams of 12 members each — nine men and three women. Often, the children also tag along. Ashok works for eight hours daily, earning Rs. 156 — the nominal wage fixed for all sweepers at the Mela.
The Bhangis are mostly concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat. Like most other Schedule Castes, while they might have shifted to less ostracised jobs, the stigma attached to their traditional occupation remains. They are identified as untouchables in some areas — marginalised socially, economically and culturally.
In the late 19th century, the caste witnessed extensive conversions to Islam and Christianity. However, today, the majority of Mehtars are devout Hindus. And that religiosity, along with the guarantee of work, is a good reason why they travel all the way to Allahabad to attend the annual Magh Melas, albeit for a lower wage than what they earn in their hometowns. “Kaam bhi hota hai aur Gangaji ke darshan bhi.”
However, they are coerced by local sweepers to pay ‘circle tax’ just to get their names registered as sweepers. “I paid Rs. 700. If I don’t pay them, they will harass me and not let me work,” says Ramnaresh.