As she lugged the basket, the excreta trickled down Goel’s face and entered her eyes, her nose, her mouth. She said she “had no time to wipe it off”. While she worked, there were thousands others gathering along the riverbank to defecate in the open.
More than 12 lakh devotees from across India flocked in late July to the pilgrim city of Pandharpur in Maharashtra’s Solapur district to mark Ashadi Ekadashi, an annual festival dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Vitthal.
Knowing that the city of one lakh couldn’t cope with such numbers – it has 12,800 toilets, including public and private ones at mathas, dharmshalas and hotels – the Pandharpur Municipal Council built 2,100 temporary pit toilets for the festival and then pressed Kashi and 150 others to clean the human waste. Like Kashi, all the 150 others were from the Mehtar caste, a community that has been historically forced into manual scavenging.
Differing with the sanitation workers’ testimonies, both the Pandharpur muncipality and the Solapur collectorate deny they had to manually clean faeces. They’re aware that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, makes manual scavenging illegal.
Kashi Goel and local activists assert that what happened this July gets repeated in Pandharpur every year.
As many as 10,000-15,000 throng to the pilgrim city on weekends. On the Ekadashi in the first, eighth and eleventh months of the Hindu calendar, about 5 to 6 lakh devotees come here. And every Ashadi Ekadashi, celebrated on the eleventh day of the Hindu lunar calendar’s fourth month, the numbers burgeon to 12 lakh – this is when the city buckles under the pressures.
“Private mathas don’t provide sufficient water and so devotees staying there often have to use public toilets,” explained activist Guru Dodiya. “Many locals here provide accommodation to devotees on the condition they won’t use their toilets. Devotees who are farmers or labourers choose to stay along the river. Public toilets cannot cater to all these people and so you can see people defecating in the open.”
This year, the sanitation workers were expecting a stop to the degrading work of manual scavenging.
On December 24, 2014, the Bombay High Court had ordered the Pandharpur Municipal Council and Solapur collectorate to acquire enough prefabricated toilets so that there’s one for every 40 visitors. The court, hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Campaign against Manual Scavenging, had set the 2015 Ashadi Ekadashi as the deadline.
But 20 days before the Ashadi, on July 7, the municipality told the court that it couldn’t get enough prefabricated toilets. “The company that was to provide us toilets supplied them for the Nashik Kumbh Mela being held in August and September,” said Shankar Gore, chief officer, Pandharpur Municipal Council.
As a result, like every year, Goel and her colleagues say they had to clean human waste by hand from July 25 to July 28, while devotees poured in and trickled out.
More toilets next year
Sanitation workers, in the past, have rebelled against the dehumanising practice. In 2010, a reply to a Right to Information query had revealed a letter sent by 33 sanitation supervisors to the municipality, in which they declared that they would no longer monitor manual scavenging.
Activist Guru Dodiya says the municipality was by law required to “rehabilitate people belonging to the Mehtar community” but it never did so. “Many people who have retired from the job still await houses promised by the government,” he said. “Municipal doctors have never done check-ups of manhole workers.”
Both the municipal and collectorate authorities are needed to keep the city clean and ensure that human excreta doesn’t enter River Bhima, which provides drinking water to the city, to avoid epidemics of jaundice, cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Since they don’t have the machines or technologies to clean the human waste mechanically, they enrol sanitation workers.
Ganga Solanki, 62, who was among those temporarily hired by the municipality this year for Ashadi Ekadashi, said, “The corporation doesn’t provide necessary equipment and we are compelled to clean toilets by hand or only broom.” This year, as a concession, the sweeping staff was provided boots and gloves – but, the staff says, they were impractically heavy.
Gore says all this will change: by next year, he promises, the civic body will get 25,000 toilets as directed by the court.