The ‘manual scavengers’ of India whose tasks include removing human excrement by hand
The practice reinforces the deeply ingrained Hindu trope that 167 million Indians are ‘untouchable’, or innately polluted from birth
Dalit women ritually burn their manual scavenging baskets in Dewas, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Photograph: Pratap Rughani
Each night across India, people known as Dalit or “oppressed” prepare for their daily task – removing human excrement from dry latrines by hand. Locked into this traditional – and illegal practice – by upper-caste Hindus, with the frequent complicity of local officials, the lower-caste communities who engage in “manual scavenging” are barred from alternative work under threats of violence, eviction, and alienation.
There are around 1.2 million “manual scavengers” in India, 90 per cent of whom are women. Workers often rewarded by a few crumbs of stale bread and or a few rupees – never more than €10 a year. They also endure side-effects like constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Innately demeaning, the practice also reinforces the deeply ingrained Hindu trope that 167 million Indians are “untouchable”, or innately polluted from birth.
Tasleem Bi, a former “scavenger” from a village near Ujjain, knows all about it. “I was afraid to leave,” she says. “If I didn’t do it there was no social acceptance, and no other means of livelihood.”
She contracted skin disease, and her hair fell out. “During monsoon season, the water would permeate my wicker basket and I would get drenched. I lost my hair. I saw many catch TB and die early. I realised I was a slave.”
That all changed upon the arrival, in 2005, of Ashif Shaik, the founder of Jan Sahas, arguably the most important aid organisation on the subcontinent. After much opposition, he convinced Tasleem – and 40 other villagers – to leave, symbolically burning their baskets.
Manual scavenging is merely the most visible feature of the Hindu caste system, presaged on a perverted view of karma in which being born poor or disabled as a curse from god. The system has also infected Indian Islam, with Dalit Hindus. Honour killings of inter-caste couples are frequent, but often unreported. In the past 10 years, Jan Sahas have helped 1,400 survivors of caste atrocities. And all carried out in the name of a religion that professes to see the divine in all.
When Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar – who wrote India’s constitution and coined the word “Dalit” (“oppressed”) – famously compared the discrimination of Indian Dalits with that of the Jews under Hitler, or of African-Americans before civil rights, he did so with some justification. Caste discrimination remains the original sin of Indian society.
Even Mahatma Gandhi went on hunger strike to scupper separate electorates for Dalits, whom he patronisingly labelled “Harijan” – or children of god. Today, the word Harijan is used for children conceived by Dalit prostitutes in the temples of upper-caste Brahmins.
Sumit Chavan experienced caste discrimination himself in university. He says liberal Brahmins felt free to criticise the caste system that has them at its apex, while he was expected to criticise positive discrimination that sees college places reserved for Dalits. “That’s how privilege works,” he says. The boundaries are always being maintained.”
Chavan’s colleague Sanjay briefly “worked” as a manual scavenger, like his mother. From the ages of five and 15, he was unable to go to school, as the local headmaster would not suffer to sit in the same room as a Dalit child. “On many occasions the headmaster called me a dirty person, and told me to go home,” he remembers. “Eventually an outside teacher who did not care about social pressure agreed to tutor me privately.”
The Dalit community now has a powerful tool. “They cannot ignore caste any longer with the internet,” Sumit says.
Yet undercutting caste is a wider problem: gender. Every day, 92 women are raped. Female infanticide, meanwhile ensures a high ratio of men to women.
“Girls are the first victims of the caste system, in terms of access to education,” explains Manju, who works with minor Dalit girls for Jan Sahas. “We are married off early, from the ages of 10 to 17. This area is very conservative and not really adapted to change.”
In some areas, girls are married when two or three years old – or before they are even born. Faced with caste and gender violence, many women understandably run away – often to Mumbai, a teeming, thriving city of well over 20 million. Yet there are no funded facilities facilities for runaway women – dozens of whom arrive by train every day.
Instead, a group of four staff from a small rescue centre, Urja, turn up at the huge Dadar railway station looking to rescue these “Runaway Girls” so they do not fall into trafficking or prostitution. If they see a lone woman who looks lost and confused, they tentatively make dialogue, explains Vaishali Janarthanan, a former teacher and Urja deputy manager. “It takes time to establish trust with the women. They are often provincial girls.”
Urja’s task is daunting – Dadar station must be seen to be believed. Yet Vaishali and colleagues are helped by its vast army of railway police, ticket staff and coolies. The newly homeless women come from as far away as Kashmir and Nepal. “Counselling is also of paramount importance,” Vaishali adds. “If she is not able to deal with her trauma, then all the rest of the things crumble. Her mental wellbeing is most important.”
Urja staff often travel to meet the girls’ families, often in remote areas thousands of miles away. “Sometimes the family comes here,” Vaishali says. “There is a lot of drama. Sometimes it gets ugly, sometimes it’s productive. We’re prepared.”
Every year, Urja provide food, shelter and education to 80 women, progressing them towards independent living. Most are from lower castes, but occasionally upper caste women arrived, cast out by their families for leaving abusive husbands.
“They are all over 18, but it takes a while for them to realise they have a choice. The conditioning so deep-rooted. But they’ve made the biggest choice – leaving their homes.”
In airports, taxis and shops around Mumbai, I am told repeatedly that the caste system is only a problem in rural areas. “It’s not true that it’s gone,” says Vaishali, who grew up in relative privilege. “It’s a myth we are fed, saying that caste is gone.”
Minakshi, a 23-year-old Urja resident, is living proof. Aged 11, she was sent from her home state of Gujarat to Mumbai to work as a child maid for a rich family.
“The woman who employed would try and be nice, telling me I was like my daughter. She taught me things. But then she started hitting me. She used to beat me up a lot. She had huge anger issues. One day when I was 14 I decided I’d had enough and went to an orphanage.”
Since coming to Urja, Minakshi has progressed in English and is undergoing IT training. The charity’s training runs from basic literacy to Masters-level degrees with local colleges.
Back in Ujjain, Dasleem is educating by example to 42 fellow former manual scavengers. A year after meeting Jan Sahas in 2005, she stood for mayor of her village, and won, despite huge opposition. Now 42, the former bonded labourer is owner of a small incense factory in Ujjain. It is clean for both owners and staff. “Today I am the boss,” she says. “We were all happy to get out of manual scavenging. It was quicksand.”
Jan Sahas and Urja are both supported by the Karuna Trust, a London charity co-run by Irish aid workers. This article supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.