Burying democracy in human waste
Every day that the practice of manual scavenging continues is another day that negates the right to a life of dignity for those still forced to engage in this demeaning work
The Supreme Court had recently admonished a District Magistrate for filing a “wrong” affidavit stating that there was no manual scavenging in his district. Just a day earlier, Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh had publicly apologised for the continuance of the practice of manual scavenging. And I thought of a documentary on manual scavenging that has haunted me ever since I saw it.
It is really what is described as an “in your face” documentary. A scene is of a small girl in a blue frock, and with liquid eyes — what in Tamil we would call “Neerottam.” She answers the questions about her experience in school (what I give below is not a verbatim reproduction of the script, but an imperfect one).
“Did you like school?”
“Yes.” (A shy smile)
“I used to sit in the front row. Then my classmates did not want me to sit next to them. So the teacher asked me to move to the last row. I went for some days. Then I stopped.”
This did not happen decades ago, but in this day and age. It must have been a government school. Where else will a poor Bhangi’s child go? Article 17 of the Constitution states: “Untouchability is abolished.” If a government schoolteacher can ask a child to go to the back row because her classmates do not want any contact with her, when was it abolished?
Let us all feel on our skin the sandpaper-rub of exclusion. We are not done with that little girl yet. The camera stays on her face, while she looks back at us. Slowly those deep eyes, which have known a pain that no eight-year-old should, well up with tears and she whispers:
“I wanted to become a nurse or a teacher.”
Fraternity, we promised ourselves; fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. What does fraternity mean? Dr. Ambedkar said, when the Constitution was in the making, that: “Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians — of Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve. Castes are anti-national, in the first place, because, they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.” The truth must be told, we have not overcome. Why else did the teacher ask that child to sit away from her classmates?
How do we apologise to her for the insult to her dignity, the vandalism of her dreams, and the destruction of her desire? How do we make amends? Can we, in one lifetime, do it? This was a denial of fraternity, a violation of the basic principle of democracy. We, the units of humanity, are interconnected and respect for each other is a sine qua non of all human interactions. There can be no dilution or compromise on this. It is not dependent on who the one is or who the other. This interconnectedness is fraternity — the spirit that assures and affirms human dignity. That is why it is imperative that fraternity informs all State actions and all social transactions. The dynamics between equality and fraternity work like this: in the absence of substantive equality, there will always be groups whose dignity is not acknowledged resulting in a negation of fraternity. Of the five senses, touch is the least understood. But it is the only sense that establishes fraternity that also establishes kinship. A bridge is built when you touch another in kinship in a way that it is not when you look at, talk to or listen to the other. And “a continent of persons” within India has been denied that “touch,” that kinship. It is because we have not understood the principle of fraternity, that there is no “they” and “us,” there is only “us.”
That young girl of the broken dreams was born to parents who are manual scavengers. This is a group to which the right to fraternity is consistently and brazenly denied, and the most marginalised of marginalised groups. It is acknowledged in public meetings that manual scavenging is a human rights issue and not about sanitation. We read in the newspapers that this practice would soon be banned and that we would become Nirmal Bharat. But it continues. Even if the winds of change are blowing, for the condemned ones even yesterday is not soon enough, any of the yesterdays. There have been many deadlines for eradicating this practice, one such final deadline was March 31, 2010. Deadlines have come and gone. But manual scavengers continue their work, anaesthetising themselves with drinks and drugs from these assaults on their dignity. Their lives are a daily negation of the right to a life with dignity though they have court orders affirming that right.
When a teacher asks a child — like the one whom we met earlier — what her father does for a living, what would she say? “My father carries all your filth on his head?” She probably remains silent. If she speaks those words, her classmates would not see it just as another job. No, it is a job that has to be done by the “other,” so “our” houses “within” will remain clean, and “the other” after cleaning the house will go outside the margin and remain “unclean.” She would be asked to sit away from the rest. So, she is silent.
‘What do you know?’
I once heard at the National Judicial Academy, an excruciatingly painful experience shared by Bezwada Wilson, who campaigns against manual scavenging. He had seen some persons who were manual scavengers, digging in a pile of excreta.
He asked, “What are you doing?”
“The pail has got buried in the filth; we are trying to retrieve it.”
“So you will dig there with your hands?”
“If we do not get it back, we cannot do our job tomorrow, and we will not get paid. What do you know?”
He said, “I walked and walked for a long time out in the fields and I stood there and cried to the moon, I cried to the wind, I cried to the water, I cried and I asked why?”
In his book “The Strange Alchemy of Law and Life,” Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa writes, “There are some things human beings cannot do to other human beings.” He said it in the context of torture; it is just the same in the context of this abomination. The Supreme Court in State of M.P. vs. Ram Krishna Balothia (1995 SCC (3) 221) rejected the attack on the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, saying that a special legislation to check and deter crimes against them committed by non-Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Tribes is necessary, in view of the continued violation of their rights. S.3(1)(ii) of this Act says: “Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe —
ii. acts with intent to cause injury, insult or annoyance to any member of a Scheduled Caste, or a Scheduled Tribe by dumping excreta … in his premises or neighbourhood,” is punishable.
But the work of manually lifting and the removal of human excreta is inextricably linked with caste and is another form of “dumping.”
Mr. Wilson writes in his Foreword to Gita Ramaswamy’s book “India Stinking …” (2005) that, “(A)n estimated 13,00,000 people from dalit communities continue to be employed as manual scavengers across the length and breadth of this country — in private homes, in community dry latrines managed by the municipality, in the public sector such as railways and by the army.” This is why the heart of a little girl who wanted to become a nurse was broken and she dropped out of school. There are some things one human being does not do to another human being.
(Prabha Sridevan, a former Judge of the Madras High Court, is Chairperson, Intellectual Property Appellate Board.)