The Big Story: Caste off
Almost everyone is in banal agreement: caste is a terrible concept. But for the inhumanity of the system to really hit you, one needs to look at manual scavengers at work, picking up excreta with little more than a pan and a broom – and often their hands.
In the world-view dictated by caste, these workers are barely seen as human. Indian municipalities, for example, often send down Dalits into sewers to manually clean drains. Not only is the work dehumanising in the extreme, it is also very dangerous. In the city of Delhi, 10 Dalits have died cleaning drains in the past five weeks. In response, the Delhi government on Monday banned manual scavenging in the city.
On the face of it, this looks like a good move. In theory, however, manual scavenging was banned across the country in 1993. Why was Delhi – India’s capital – using human beings to manually clean sewers more than two decades after this law was passed?
It isn’t only Delhi. Manual scavenging is commonplace across the country. By official estimates, India has nearly 2 lakh households involved in manual scavenging. Despite being illegal, the Indian Railways also uses manual scavengers to pick up excreta. Even while there is talk of India becoming a superpower, it seems installing a basic waste collection and treatment system in trains is beyond the capabilities of the Indian state as train toilets continue to drop excreta right onto the tracks.
In 2013, a new law was passed by Parliament that even spoke of compensating manual scavengers who had lost their jobs. But in Mumbai, for example, it has simply not been implemented. Every time a sewer is blocked, a worker has to descend down a manhole, immerse himself in liquid excreta and risk exposure to noxious gases to clean the sewer. Machines and equipment used routinely across the rest of the world have made no headway in India given the easy accessibility of entire castes designated as “sweepers”.
The Delhi government’s statement is a small step. India will have to effect a sea change in its mental make-up if it wants to eradicate this dehumanising practice.
The Big Scroll
- Manual scavenging is illegal, so why do states continue to support the practice, asks Radha Patankar.
- Swagat Yadavar interviews two researchers to uncover the surprising links between casteism, open defecation and high infant mortality in India
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