D. Karthikeyan

They must be given jobs in tune with changing economy, says survey

MADURAI: A persistent form of discrimination in India has been caste-based discrimination. For this ignominious form confines Dalits to occupations often involving the most menial tasks such as scavenging, removal of bodies, carcasses , garbage and night soil.

For the Dalits, hierarchical ritual incorporation through roles as scavengers, funeral servants and drummers are the remnants of a function of a complex socio-historical structure within which a social group is assigned a ritual status specifying a degree of purity or pollution attached to it.

Even at a time of market-oriented economy, the Dalits are excluded from a wide range of work opportunities in the area of production, processing or sale of food items, domestic work and the provision of certain services in the private and public sectors.

A survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation in Madurai, Theni, Dindigul and Virudhunagar districts reveals that Dalits are still performing these menial tasks. They enter manhole drainages to clear the silt; remove the blockages and carry the silt on their head to dispose it of.

Study reveals that most of these works are carried out without any protective gear. The survey was conducted only in certain areas. A questionnaire with three sets of questions (51 questions in total) was given to 303 workers in the four districts. The respondents include 212 males, 91 females, among whom 289 were Dalits, 12 were Christian Dalits and two belonged to Scheduled Tribes.

The most important fact of the survey is that the workers are not subject to a single polluting job but have to perform a series of menial tasks that are considered to be polluting. Among the 303 workers, 10 were working as mortuary keepers; 135 were engaged in carrying and burying the bodies; 186 in removal of dead cattle; 60 in beating drums to announce death; 131 were involved in removing night soil; 200 were drawn to clean the toilets, 205 were among those who removed garbage and 12 were involved in tanning and preserving leather. Most of the workers were doing multiple jobs.

Most of the workers had to work for 8 to 12 hours a day and there were a few who had to work for more than 12 hours. They earn an income between Rs 400 and Rs.12, 000 per month and most of them fall in the bracket of Rs.4, 000 to 6,000.

Among the 303 workers, 63 were employed in villages, 104 under panchayats, 56 in municipalities and 80 in municipal corporations. Most of the workers said that social ostracism due to the nature of job did exist in villages and neighbourhoods. They also suffered from ailments like insomnia and mental depression which had also led them to alcoholism.

Many workers among the interviewed were in the grip of the crude form of usury, ‘Kandhuvatti' money lenders. A. Kathir, executive director, Evidence, which carried out the survey in February, said that the Government should conduct an extensive empirical survey and come out with a white paper.

The Dalits who were involved in these menial tasks should be emancipated and provided with jobs in accordance with the changing market economy and ensure equality under the Constitution. The amount of compensation to workers who died of asphyxiation while performing these tasks should be increased.