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No hope, no future

Manual scavenging leaves an indelible scar on the psyche of many children. MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA writes of the need to help them better their lives.


I TRAILED behind them over four states — Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Our most pathetic children — the bhangis, doms, mehtars of India. Everywhere, they were the same. The children of ugly India, who've had their childhood snatched from them. We see them everywhere, yet we've ceased to be shocked. They are so commonplace that we do not notice them. They are our invisible children.

I've been on the balmiki trail since 1997. Even for the outsider, the writer merely recording their plight, it's a nauseating, depressing round. I thought I'd seen everything. Then I came to Sikar, Rajasthan. Manual scavenging anywhere tends to shock you, the sheer ugliness of it, the degradation of an entire people. But this was worse. In Sikar, little girls — eight, nine, 10 years old — were working with their mothers.

I met Pooja. She thought she was about 12. She had the saddest eyes of any little girl I have ever seen. And as she talked haltingly, slowly, shyly, I finally realised what it was all about. Not just the four endless years of cleaning human shit every morning from the age of eight. It was a combination of many things. Pooja had never ever had a childhood.

Pooja's dress was faded and had obviously seen better days. Her hair was neatly combed but it had the blonde, straw-textured streaks, a tell tale sign of malnutrition and vitamin deficiency. She was going to the school started by Manavadhikar Sampark Kendra to help balmikis. She was pleased to have stopped working the latrines. She wrote her name painstakingly, with pride and concentration.

I asked her what she'd like to be when she grew up. Even as the question left my lips, I could have bitten my tongue off. She looked at me blankly. She was 12. Girls like Pooja are married off immediately after puberty. She could barely write her name at 12. Unless there was a radical intervention in her life, what could she hope for? A stupid, thoughtless, pointless question.

In and around, Sikar there were 70 little girls like Pooja working the latrines. The scenario was the same in U.P. and Bihar. There are still one million people working as manual scavengers all over India. Prime Minister Vajpayee, like others before him, declared from the ramparts of the Red Fort that manual scavenging would be abolished by 2002. The deadline is one-year old. Nothing has changed for India's one million balmikis.

An ActionAid led campaign has successfully highlighted the problem in U.P., M.P., Bihar and Rajasthan. But even where activists have successfully sealed dry latrines, the fate of the people is pathetic. For the children, it seems hopeless.

Merely admitting them in government schools achieves nothing. The children are victimised, picked on, beaten up, laughed and jeered at. I met Rina about the same age as Pooja. She looked less defeated than her friend. That may have been the effect of her bright orange top and black trousers. She'd been to the government school for one month. "Why did you leave?" I asked her. "The teacher used to beat me". "Why did he do that?" I asked. "I wasn't very good with lessons," she answered. Twelve years old with one month of schooling in all her life. And the first teacher she encountered beat her because he thought she was stupid and lazy.

That's what education means for the average balmiki child. In addition, they have to sit and eat separately. They are not allowed to take water from the pot because it would be polluting. The teaching is minimal.

Near Lucknow I met another group of bright, laughing kids. They'd all been admitted to school by a well-meaning social worker who had used a blend of threats and cajoling to convince the headmaster that the kids had to be admitted. He reminded the principal about the existence of the Prevention of Atrocities Act by which practicing untouchablility is punishable by law. The kids were excited, delighted as any kid would be at the prospect of not cleaning latrines.

A few months later all of them had dropped out. The teacher beat them. Called them stupid. And rarely taught them anything. None of them could read or write after six months in school. They were now out every morning collecting plastic from garbage dumps. Earning Rs. 20-30 a day. They went to the movies sometimes. School was a distant dream with not very pleasant memories.

I thought of our President's inspiring speeches to children in cities. To toppers, super intelligent, elite kids in "good school". Girls like Pooja don't know what gold medals or high first classes mean. She wrote her name painstakingly, with pride. For her, that was a huge achievement. Kids like Pooja cannot dream big. A good life means enough to eat, hoping they won't be ill and that they can sleep without being beaten or brutalised by a drunken father. The President's targets will be met in Hyderabad and Bangalore and IITs.

If bhangi kids had just one centre of excellence where could they not go? What is desperately needed is a kind of bridge school designed for older children who've never been to school before. More than the teaching, they need kind, loving nurturing teachers. All these children bear the scars of being told "keep your distance, go back to the slum". They barely believe that any other kind of life exists.

There are thousands of kids like Pooja and Rina. Putting them into ordinary schools is not enough. Only a dedicated, committed group of people can heal the wounds and scars that centuries of scorn, degradation and derision have left on their psyche. Anyone with compassion and sympathy would empathise with them. But it means a long-term commitment to an uphill task, a long, lonely and difficult road. Are there any takers?

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