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Updated: January 10, 2013 00:50 IST

Burying democracy in human waste

Prabha Sridevan
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Every day that the practice of manual scavenging continues is another day that negates the right to a life of dignity for those still forced to engage in this demeaning work

The Supreme Court had recently admonished a District Magistrate for filing a “wrong” affidavit stating that there was no manual scavenging in his district. Just a day earlier, Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh had publicly apologised for the continuance of the practice of manual scavenging. And I thought of a documentary on manual scavenging that has haunted me ever since I saw it.

It is really what is described as an “in your face” documentary. A scene is of a small girl in a blue frock, and with liquid eyes — what in Tamil we would call “Neerottam.” She answers the questions about her experience in school (what I give below is not a verbatim reproduction of the script, but an imperfect one).

“Did you like school?”

“Yes.” (A shy smile)

“What happened?”

“I stopped.”


“I used to sit in the front row. Then my classmates did not want me to sit next to them. So the teacher asked me to move to the last row. I went for some days. Then I stopped.”

This did not happen decades ago, but in this day and age. It must have been a government school. Where else will a poor Bhangi’s child go? Article 17 of the Constitution states: “Untouchability is abolished.” If a government schoolteacher can ask a child to go to the back row because her classmates do not want any contact with her, when was it abolished?

Let us all feel on our skin the sandpaper-rub of exclusion. We are not done with that little girl yet. The camera stays on her face, while she looks back at us. Slowly those deep eyes, which have known a pain that no eight-year-old should, well up with tears and she whispers:

“I wanted to become a nurse or a teacher.”

Fraternity, we promised ourselves; fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. What does fraternity mean? Dr. Ambedkar said, when the Constitution was in the making, that: “Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians — of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve. Castes are anti-national, in the first place, because, they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” The truth must be told, we have not overcome. Why else did the teacher ask that child to sit away from her classmates?

How do we apologise to her for the insult to her dignity, the vandalism of her dreams, and the destruction of her desire? How do we make amends? Can we, in one lifetime, do it? This was a denial of fraternity, a violation of the basic principle of democracy. We, the units of humanity, are interconnected and respect for each other is a sine qua non of all human interactions. There can be no dilution or compromise on this. It is not dependent on who the one is or who the other. This interconnectedness is fraternity — the spirit that assures and affirms human dignity. That is why it is imperative that fraternity informs all State actions and all social transactions. The dynamics between equality and fraternity work like this: in the absence of substantive equality, there will always be groups whose dignity is not acknowledged resulting in a negation of fraternity. Of the five senses, touch is the least understood. But it is the only sense that establishes fraternity that also establishes kinship. A bridge is built when you touch another in kinship in a way that it is not when you look at, talk to or listen to the other. And “a continent of persons” within India has been denied that “touch,” that kinship. It is because we have not understood the principle of fraternity, that there is no “they” and “us,” there is only “us.”

2010 deadline

That young girl of the broken dreams was born to parents who are manual scavengers. This is a group to which the right to fraternity is consistently and brazenly denied, and the most marginalised of marginalised groups. It is acknowledged in public meetings that manual scavenging is a human rights issue and not about sanitation. We read in the newspapers that this practice would soon be banned and that we would become Nirmal Bharat. But it continues. Even if the winds of change are blowing, for the condemned ones even yesterday is not soon enough, any of the yesterdays. There have been many deadlines for eradicating this practice, one such final deadline was March 31, 2010. Deadlines have come and gone. But manual scavengers continue their work, anaesthetising themselves with drinks and drugs from these assaults on their dignity. Their lives are a daily negation of the right to a life with dignity though they have court orders affirming that right.

When a teacher asks a child — like the one whom we met earlier — what her father does for a living, what would she say? “My father carries all your filth on his head?” She probably remains silent. If she speaks those words, her classmates would not see it just as another job. No, it is a job that has to be done by the “other,” so “our” houses “within” will remain clean, and “the other” after cleaning the house will go outside the margin and remain “unclean.” She would be asked to sit away from the rest. So, she is silent.

‘What do you know?’

I once heard at the National Judicial Academy, an excruciatingly painful experience shared by Bezwada Wilson, who campaigns against manual scavenging. He had seen some persons who were manual scavengers, digging in a pile of excreta.

He asked, “What are you doing?”

“The pail has got buried in the filth; we are trying to retrieve it.”

“So you will dig there with your hands?”

“If we do not get it back, we cannot do our job tomorrow, and we will not get paid. What do you know?”

He said, “I walked and walked for a long time out in the fields and I stood there and cried to the moon, I cried to the wind, I cried to the water, I cried and I asked why?”

In his book “The Strange Alchemy of Law and Life,” Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa writes, “There are some things human beings cannot do to other human beings.” He said it in the context of torture; it is just the same in the context of this abomination. The Supreme Court in State of M.P. vs. Ram Krishna Balothia (1995 SCC (3) 221) rejected the attack on the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, saying that a special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by non-Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Tribes is necessary, in view of the continued violation of their rights. S.3(1)(ii) of this Act says: “Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe —

i. .........

ii. acts with intent to cause injury, insult or annoyance to any member of a Scheduled Caste, or a Scheduled Tribe by dumping excreta ... in his premises or neighbourhood,” is punishable.

But the work of manually lifting and the removal of human excreta is inextricably linked with caste and is another form of “dumping.”

Mr. Wilson writes in his Foreword to Gita Ramaswamy’s book “India Stinking …” (2005) that, “(A)n estimated 13,00,000 people from dalit communities continue to be employed as manual scavengers across the length and breadth of this country — in private homes, in community dry latrines managed by the municipality, in the public sector such as railways and by the army.” This is why the heart of a little girl who wanted to become a nurse was broken and she dropped out of school. There are some things one human being does not do to another human being.

(Prabha Sridevan, a former Judge of the Madras High Court, is Chairperson, Intellectual Property Appellate Board.)

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The author has quoted Ambedkar, but the irony is that it was the same Ambedkar who gave constitutional legitimacy, probably unwittingly, by classifying people by casts and mandating reservations based on casts in education and employment. Thus we have a constitutionally secular government which officially classifies the citizens based on casts while the leaders keep exhorting the nation against the inhuman nature of practicing cast based discrimination! It would be worth researching into how a great erudite intellectual like Dr. Ambedkar with his professed humanistic views came to author such a constitution. Just like in the aftermath of partition, our colonial masters did not seem to have helped in this matter either though Dr. Ambedkar visited at least twice the residence of the British Prime Minister in London (10 Downing Street) during the formulation of Indian constitution. It should be noted that ‘Carpenter’, ‘Butcher’, ‘Thatcher, ‘Goldsmith’ etc are also surnames in western countries, but none of them gave constitutional or legal approval to make such job/skill based identity into a social division.

The only rational way for India, it seems, is to change the constitution and make it worthy of a secular democracy by indentifying every Indian as a citizen of the country and nothing more. Whether a citizen is religious or agnostic or atheist should be regarded as that individual’s personal and private matter. India can find a very good example in France or in the European Union in general for that matter. I am one who believes that if the Indian constitution was framed without identifying individuals by caste, the present day generation would have been born into a society in which caste consciousness would have been a thing of the past or at worst a bane of the older generations.

from:  B. Baburajan
Posted on: Jan 9, 2013 at 20:24 IST

We, the people of this country, should understand that repeated acknowledgements,
apologies and assurances are not going to eradicate this menace from our society.
Even after repeated amendments to the very first act (Employment of Manual
Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act, 1993), the ground
results have been disappointing due to continued existence of dry toilets in our
country. If the political leadership has a strong will, why can't it allocate more budget
to the programs like Total Sanitation Campaign and Integrated Low Cost Sanitation
Scheme that deal with the conversion of dry toilets into pour flush ones (Budget
Allocated in 2010-11 was 60 crore)? Why should these programs be treated like
Education and Health Sector Schemes that deal with changing mindset, evolve and
provide results over a period of time? In fact, the Manual Scavengers could be used
as Self Help Groups to build flush toilets which would serve both the objectives very

from:  Siddharth Pandit
Posted on: Jan 9, 2013 at 10:05 IST

I lived in Northern city of Lashkar/Gwalior,in MP,in 50's,mannuel scavanging was more common,everyday from morning to evening,men,children & others carried on this disgusting chore throgh the main street and galis,there was no other alternative,still no alternative 2013.Abolishing caste,constitution amendament would nothing.I wrote earlier what was to be done,produce enough cement man made pipes bury them under ground,have enough water to flush it down,charge everybody who uses,a monthly fee like US does,I pay $ 32 dollar every month,and gladly do,$70 dollar for water.It will become self sustaining entity.No body grumbles.Non-sense,of a girl being humliated is a cop out,the founding fathers failed in 1947,as simple as that,you do not need IPL and Cricket,work hard and contribute,do not send probes to moon and Mars,US,does it because they solved their basic needs of water,food and shelter,they have basic safety net for poor,welfare,food stamp,unemployment and rule of law,India is not US

from:  Jyoti.H.Mani
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 21:32 IST

Extremely involved in the luxuries,callous towards others and able to justify all through logics with religion-being the super logic.“Religion is for man not man for religion” but in reality religion is the one for which man exists.And somehow religion has vested powers in hands of many and marginalized few and they won’t lose it,especially to weaker ones.
Ineffectiveness of laws is one reason but key is the deep rooted hierarchy in the mindset.
In this case, Is teacher really the one to be blamed? Parents or relatives of other students could have ordered or threatened the teacher itself. Strong, stringent laws are more than welcome but nothing without sensitization of people and change in mindset which can’t without eradication of caste system.
I wish to content myself that we are heading towards an equal and just society but I can’t believe that it can happen in coming decades. “The world has got better for many but got worst for them” and all of us equally responsible.

from:  Mithun
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 14:47 IST

The root cause is that our religion supports a pecking order through the caste system. Once
the framework for discrimination is established, the question is how far will this corrupt social
system go with it? Manual scavenging represents the worst form of subjugation, it is caste
based discrimination taken to its extreme.

While India was founded on modern reformist ideal wherein equality was enshrined in its
constitution, caste based divisions of the society were never taken head on. Can the gurus
of today from Shri Sankaracharya to Sri Sri Ravishankar to the Baba Ramdevs call for the
eradication of the caste system?

When that day comes I would say that is true awakening for a religion which is otherwise
Lofty in thought and quite broad minded about how one relates to the Divine.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 06:31 IST

A few thoughts - We have initiatives like clean and accessible toilets undertaken by Sulabh. We have initiatives like "clean and green" introduced by some Governments in the past. We also have a trove of initiatives undertaken by individuals and organizations. Yet, there are no clearly defined goals and common action plan about sanitation and garbage treatment within our towns and cities. Individuals and organizations are doing their best within their confines to achieve certain goals but they are very much localized and often short-lived initiatives. There is no framework for collaboration across multiple interest groups in achieving the common goal of healthy living conditions. Australia and Germany are implementing a well defined framework for garbage collection, sewage treatment and sanitation which is yielding positive results. This kind of framework coupled with technology has a potential to eliminate manual scavenging practices which will bring genetic changes in Indian society.

from:  Chaitanya Chandu
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 06:00 IST

Class, cast and lack of care for workers' safety and dignity are all so common in the country. The majority people are desensitized to a point when they see these unjust and inhuman conditions, they don't even recognize the problems. One can also hide behind the'Karmic' concept to justify the miserable state of these people as well! It is a sad reflection of a modern India that strives to become a first world country. Human waste and other filth is prevalent in every country but the people and the Governments in those countries act immediately to negate the negatives and make the job as an acceptable and well paid work. In India those menial jobs are poorly paid and are left with low cast people to handle it. Since it is seen as not a problem for the mainstream and middle class, nothing is considered and improved for those menial workers who are working as the modern day slaves for the white collar masters! When do we think outside the box and come out of this shameful social disorder?

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 04:35 IST

these kind of child will not get justice until their illiterate parents get a decent employment outside village. i also think it can not be stopped in villages because poor people take little money from higher castes then they have to work in same way because have no other option and they are not aware about most of the govt schemes. Govt should provide them job outside their village so they can work freely and govt official must take feedback from their children about school teacher behavior any kind of differentiation in school must lead to termination of concerned teacher with in a month. or we can put CCTV cameras in classes if power is available there.

from:  gaurav
Posted on: Jan 8, 2013 at 04:34 IST
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