Bezwada Wilson richly deserves the Ramon Magsaysay Award, announced on July 27, for his efforts to eliminate the removal of human excrement by hand, mostly by workers belonging to the Dalit caste.

We call the practice manual scavenging, which is rather inexplicable because scavengers rescue things that have been discarded but retain some use or resale value – and fecal sludge extracted from dry latrines possesses neither of those qualities.

It is bitterly ironic that the land where sophisticated toilets were believed to have been first invented and used is also the place where the most primitive means of defecation and waste disposal are most prevalent in the 21st Century.

Past perfect?

The sewage systems of Indus Valley cities are famous for good reason – nothing comparable has been discovered in Mesopotamia or Egypt. About 4,500 years ago, most Harappan homes were equipped with toilets that connected to waterproof drains, which conveyed waste water to cesspits or beyond city limits.

The cesspits needed to be cleaned regularly, as did the sewers, but that was a job entrusted to teams of labourers working in tandem.

Each city was a comprehensive unit laid out in a precise grid, administered by one authority overseeing the functioning of public utilities in a manner not dissimilar to modern metropolises.

One can state this with some confidence despite having no access to any records kept by the Harappan people, for the design of towns such as Harappa, Dholavira and Mohenjo-daro tell a detailed story.

Dholavira, Mohenjo-daro and habitations across the region were laid out in uniform grids, built using baked bricks of identical size and shape, and containing similarly sophisticated drainage systems. The Indus Valley civilisation declined for reasons that are not fully apparent but probably involved a combination of climate change, chronic drought and broken trade links.

Rising from the ruins

There is a yawning temporal and geographical gap between the long slide of Harappa, which lasts for 500 years from around 1800 BCE, and the rise of the kingdoms and cities of the Indo-Gangetic plain circa 600 BCE.

Strangely, this period of urban decline is also one of tremendous religious and philosophical development. Even as great cities crumbled and died and settlements shrank to the size of villages, the literary output of the subcontinent flourished, culminating in the mature Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophical texts and treatises that continue to fascinate us today.

It is unusual, if not unique, for degeneration and blossoming to go hand-in-hand in this fashion. Alongside the efflorescence of spiritual and ritual texts, a crucial technological step is achieved – the harnessing of iron, resulting in the start of what has come to be known as the Iron Age.

While vegetation around the Indus valley was sparse, the plains of North India were now covered with thick jungle that only a combination of iron and fire could render fit for agriculture. The new towns that were built on cleared forest land looked very different from those to the West that preceded them by over a millennium.

Homes and city walls were built of wood rather than brick, streets were rather haphazard instead of being organised in a strict grid, with no discernable plan encompassing an entire settlement.

Sewage canals with carefully calculated gradients running the length of breadth of the city were absent. Instead of being transported away by gravity, waste collected in pots dug into the ground. Vertical disposal had replaced horizontal. It required no complex planning, investment or teamwork to run this individualised system – just people tasked with cleaning out excrement.

Flushed away

A four-fold hierarchy determined the shape of the new urban agglomerations. People of the same group clustered together, wanting little to do with others. There was no question of a single overarching plan encompassing the entire settlement.

Ultimately, those who cleaned out the waste and got rid of bodies of humans and carcasses of dead cows, as well as a few others whose work was considered unclean, were excluded completely from the city’s ambit. In the greatest indignity ever invented for a group of humans by another, their touch, or even their presence was deemed to pollute the so-called high-born.

And that’s the India that is all too familiar to us even today, the India that Wilson and his ilk are trying to make slightly less inhumane.

Back to the future

What is the connection, if any, between the cities of the Indus Valley, whose careful planning we are so far from being able to emulate, and the easily recognisable India of profound philosophical speculations and dreadful social divisions first discerned in the Indo-Gangetic plain some 2,600 years ago?

Was it the same people, retaining the same belief systems, who eventually recovered from the desertification of their erstwhile habitat and established new centres in the East? Or did the system of hereditary social stratification, of caste, enter the equation in the millennium between decline and rise, along with new myths and new gods?

I’ve hinted where I stand in what has become a heated debate about the origins of Indian and Hindu beliefs. I believe that if Wilson could be placed in a time machine and transported to Lothal 4,500 years ago, he would find no reason to be an activist of the kind he is, for he would encounter a very different civilisation based on a very different set of values.

Next week, I will explain why I think so.