Saint Valmiki, also known as adi kavi or first poet, exemplified the dos and don’ts of life in the Ramayana, a tale portraying Lord Rama as a model for Hindu virtue. Even today, moral lessons from the Ramayana are adopted by millions as a reference for day-to-day living. While we take pride in the rich heritage of the Ramayana, we seem to have forgotten the great saint, besides discriminating against his disciples. They are mainly from a group of Scheduled Castes or Dalit communities mostly engaged as sweepers or scavengers.

Lord Rama knew no caste — he ate the fruits tasted by Sabari, an elderly woman from an oppressed caste. On the other hand, some temples still bar entry for Dalits. It is ironical that we worship Lord Rama, who cared for devotion not caste, but object to people worshipping Him for reasons of caste.

Manual scavenging is another instance of our society behaving ostrich-like in overcoming the caste barrier. This engagement of members of the Valmiki community in manual scavenging and sanitation work is another example of the persistent caste barrier in society. Dr. Ambedkar said: “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.” Apart from facing caste discrimination, scavengers are at risk of contracting diseases.

The UPA government has recognised manual scavenging as a social issue rather than as a sanitation problem and is looking to strictly enforce the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

This Act has provision for punishment and fine for employing manual scavengers or constructing dry toilets. However, the government should first expand the ambit of manual scavenging to include workers who clean sewers, septic tanks and drains where human excreta is washed.

Secondly, it should provide a rehabilitation programme for these workers and their family members. Such programmes could include training in other professions and technical education. For example, scavengers could be given free vocational training, thus opening up avenues in the professional world.

Like in developed countries, sanitation workers should be armed with state-of-the-art technology and tools, thus preventing them from direct exposure to sewage water and waste. Also, the benefits of the Rastriya Swasth Bima Yojana and similar health schemes should be extended to these workers and their family members with a provision for free health check-up on a regular basis. Finally, they should get subsidised loans for starting new ventures.

Let us thank Valmiki for giving us the vision of Ramrajya. Gandhiji often compared democracy with Ramrajya, a society with no divide between the rich and the poor and where all religions are treated equally. However, a true Ramrajya would come about only when society overcomes the vicious cycle of caste and cultural barriers.

(Balyogi Umeshnath is Rashtriya Sant for the Valmiki Community, Ujjain, and Anurodh Lalit Jain is a social healthcare analyst.

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