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28 May 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

A crap job

Nothing highlights the absurdity of India’s caste system more than the practice known as ‘manual sca

By David Griffiths

I met Peddanna in his village in Andhra Pradesh, near the main highway linking two of India’s most prominent ‘hi-tech’ cities, Hyderabad and Bangalore. His pre-defined role in life is to scoop up human faeces from a dry latrine and carry them in a basket to a dumping ground. When some faeces fell onto his head recently, he complained about his working conditions to an official at the local municipality which employs him. The official seemed surprised, and said, “You are a dirty man doing a dirty job; why are you worried about this?”

Peddanna belongs to the Thoti sub-caste among India’s Dalits, the lowest rung of the ancient caste system which continues to shape Indian society. The occupation into which these Thotis are born is ‘manual scavenging’, or the cleaning of human shit with their hands, as the human rights activists more vividly describe it.

Euphemisms do not hide the realities of this occupation for long. Every morning, Peddanna and his five colleagues carry their baskets through the village to the dry latrine. It is a walk of shame, which forces them to parade their baskets as symbols of their outcast status. Once they arrive at the dry latrine, an area of dust and grass surrounded by a low wall, they scoop the faeces into baskets and carry them away, leaving the ‘higher’ castes in the village with a clean toilet. They use flimsy makeshift scoops, and have no gloves, masks or protective equipment to wear. For others, the job can be worse: many dry latrines have cement floors, from which the faeces must be scraped meticulously, using whatever is to hand.

Peddanna said: “If it is raining, when we put the basket on our heads, the shit covers our bodies.” Like many manual scavengers, he complains of regular stomach problems and an inability to eat because of the persistent smell which lingers with him. Instead, he turns to country liquor to mitigate his sense of shame about this work.

Manual scavenging is banned by law in India. But as is so often the case, legislation passed in Delhi has little impact in rural areas, home to the vast majority of the population. The problem is that prosecutions under this law must be sanctioned by the district authorities and they are often guilty of perpetuating or, at least, turning a blind eye to this practice. Manual scavengers sometimes point out a communal dry latrine exists in the Nizamabad district court in Andhra Pradesh state. Proof if nothing else that local authorities are not remotely serious about tackling this issue.

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Many manual scavengers are officially employed by municipal authorities as ‘sweepers’, another job traditionally associated with Dalits. In Peddanna’s village, he and five other men clean the dry latrines in the morning and sweep the streets in the afternoon. The village head (sarpanch) has threatened to punish them by holding back their wages if they tell the municipal authorities or anyone else about this. The manual scavengers and their families are avoided by other villages, and treated as unclean. They cannot enter restaurants or other public places anywhere they will be recognised. Even other Dalits treat them with disdain.

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Every society needs its sanitation workers, and no doubt those in any context may face some stigma. However, the deeper reality in India is that this job is reserved for Dalits, the ‘untouchables’ of old, and it is their job for life. As members of the Thoti sub-caste, Peddanna and his colleagues were destined for this work by their birth, with no right of appeal. Members of equivalent sub-castes endure similar work across numerous districts of India: perhaps as many as 1.3 million of them. The nature of the caste system is that it generates a powerful combination of social and psychological pressures, constraints and expectations, which means that they cannot simply walk out of this work into another job of their choice. Because the scavengers do this work, there is little incentive to bring about change by introducing proper toilet facilities into the areas they work. Yet as long as the scavengers do it, they will be treated as untouchables. Theirs is a story of institutional dehumanisation and the flagrant abuse of their human rights.

Humiliating descent-based occupations, of which manual scavenging is one of the worst, continue to blight the lives of India’s Dalits, who number 167 million according to the latest census data. The 84 million tribals often suffer similar exploitation. India’s population of Dalits and tribals is roughly equivalent to the combined populations of the UK, Germany, France and Spain, and they are the worst victims of labour exploitation and human rights abuses in India.

The UN has affirmed that discrimination on the basis of caste is covered by the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Having ‘noted with concern that very large numbers of Dalits are forced to work as manual scavengers’, the UN called on the Indian government to properly implement the law banning this practice.

Frustrated with government inaction, the NGO Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) has taken matters into its own hands. Describing manual scavenging as a ‘national shame’, the SKA leads a movement ambitiously campaigning to eradicate the practice by the time the Commonwealth Games come to Delhi in October 2010, and has engaged in several drives to demolish dry latrines in Andhra Pradesh. It has been immune from an official backlash by the fact that the government has claimed there are no dry latrines operational in the state.

Away from the first-world facilities in parts of Hyderabad and Bangalore, there is no question that India’s infrastructure remains very poor, especially in the rural areas. However, the continuance of this practice is not simply a question of infrastructure development, but instead rooted in the social hierarchy of caste. Infrastructural development needs to go hand-in-hand with a resolve to do away with the communal dry latrines and the dehumanisation which they perpetuate.

Just occasionally, an irony shows manual scavenging for the absurdity it is. At a dry latrine in another village I visited in Andhra Pradesh state, a crowd gathered around, watching the manual scavenger perform her work, and taking the opportunity to complain about the appalling toilet facilities which they had to endure. The manual scavenger at work, named Uma, had served us with tea in her house before beginning her day’s work. As we had left to follow her to the dry latrine, I could not help noticing that her own house had a clean, flushable toilet.