The world of manual scavenging is informed by caste, patriarchy, filth and humiliation. Their only source of “power” comes from politicians considering them a vote bank; yet, without truly understanding their lives, aspirations, and living conditions, how can governments promise them policies that could empower and change their lives?
They come once in five years, folding their hands, begging for my vote, into my locality. They walk through my narrow lanes, peep into my house, look at the condition of roads, sigh over the garbage, and cringe over open drains. They come with a longlist of the same promises in their speeches and manifestos, which also comes out only once in five years. After the elections, they simply erase me and my lanes from their memory, for the next five years. Sometimes, for the sake of giving a bone to a dog, they set up different committees to look into the conditions of my community, and introduce different schemes for socio-economic and educational advancement. However, they never pay any heed to how these committees and schemes are working. Are they reaching out to their targeted population or are they not? If they are indeed reaching out, is the community truly benefiting from these schemes? Nobody visits the same localities where they once came with folded hands to ask for votes, and expressed sadness over the condition of houses, lanes, and open drains.
In their entire political career, it never occurs to them to find out what I do for a living, a work which I am forced to do, day after day, year after year, and generation after generation. How could they make effective schemes for me, for my socio-economic and educational development, without having seen me work? Do they even know the depth of the gutter into which I dive to clean the shit of the whole city? How could they imagine my condition without seeing what a body, fully immersed in human excreta, looks like, and how my sister and mother carry a leaking basket full of excreta over their heads?
Do they know why I become so important before every monsoon – to dive into manholes and gutters to unclog them? Can they feel the humiliation I face from early morning till the time I go to sleep, not only when I do this abhorrent work but also when I walk down the street, or go to the shops to buy something? Humiliation is present in every sphere and at every moment of my life. It is as if the ghost of a Peshwa is still haunting me.
A leader of a major political party talked incessantly about women’s empowerment; however, these discourses remain dead silent on manual scavenging women, the oppression they face, and the humiliating lives they live. Is it because they do not count as women, or because they do not count as humans at all? They remain oblivious to the victimisation of the whole community by the caste system, to the oppression of the community’s women by both patriarchy and caste. This is not simply a work that we are made to do; it is a crime, an atrocious act of violence on our minds and bodies. Today, people obsessed with health and hygiene wake up in the morning to inhale the fresh air, take long walks in the parks – but my community and I, especially the women, wake up early to enter a world of foul smells. It is the world’s most unimaginable work, where the idea of fresh air does not exist at all.
A Putrid Imagination
This world of filth does not feature anywhere in the imagination of our political leaders, as we are constantly “purifying” it for them. What remains is the caste identity of my community as a potential vote bank. The honourable Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment on the practice of manual scavenging in March 2014, just before the Lok Sabha elections:
Identify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs 10 lakhs for each such death to the family members depending on them.1
Although well-meaning, it again seemed as if the ruling government was giving us a lollipop, attempting to woo us just around the elections.
Just the way I reek of filth, policymakers reek of many contradictions. On the one hand, the Indian Railways – considered the lifeline of the nation – continues to employ scavengers; on the other, policies for the eradication of this practice and rehabilitation of scavengers are discussed. If eradication is truly the goal, then there is an Act which awaits implementation. The compensation for a life lost is not money. The eradication of this practice does not need new judgments, recommendations and amendments, but just the implementation of this already existing Act. I should not be misunderstood as a cynic or a pessimist, who doubts that these families will get the promised compensation. I still have faith that all the families who have lost their earning members will receive this amount as soon as possible, which will improve their life chances.
However, compensation is just not enough. It does not put an end to this violence. If someday I die while cleaning a manhole, a gutter, or a septic tank, I do not wish for my family to be given even a single rupee. Instead, I would want my children to be given quality education and better employment. But again, as a token gesture, I do not want my daughter to be merely enrolled in a substandard municipality school or my son to replace me in the same occupation.
Without knowing me and my work, they can never make the claim of formulating a good scheme for my holistic development. They keep coming up with different schemes and committees to show how inclusive they are. However, for them, my politico-cultural positioning is not an issue to be worried about. They are afraid that if I become aware of my politico-cultural positioning in society, I may begin to reason between good and bad, right and wrong, logical and illogical, pure and impure, equality and inequality, sacred and secular and, more importantly, whom I should vote for, for my emancipation. They are afraid that I may start questioning why, after being loyal to one political party since independence, I am still being subjected to the same kind of work. In this Ram Rajya, I am expected to remain happy with the work “fate” has assigned to me – manual scavenging. Simply put, I hate being stuck in this murkiness. I hate being trapped in the web of brahminical ideology. This is like marshy land – the more I try to scramble out of it, the more I find myself getting sucked in by the bog.
Still, they expect me to vote for them, sacrificing a day’s labour by waiting in the long queue for hours, with a stomach burning with hunger. Is anybody aware that if I skip a day’s work, I may not have a single penny in my hand to feed myself in the evening? I will have to sleep on an empty stomach. So why should I let go of a day’s wage, knowing that I will be able to have food in the evening only if I work during the day? Why should I starve myself, even for a single day?
I know I won’t die if I go without food. I can go hungry, even for two to four days. I am a ruthless labourer, a hard-skinned manual scavenger. I daily survive the toxins, foul smells and humiliation. I am not going to die so easily, not at least in broad daylight, but perhaps in a dark gutter, devoured by these obnoxious smells and poisonous gases. Unseen and unheard.
But this feeling of hunger also makes me realise that my single vote is valuable, and priceless. I choose to stand the whole day under the scorching sun to vote because it reminds me continuously, again and again, of my constitutional right to vote. It is perhaps the only right that I can exercise. Therefore, I have to choose carefully and I refuse to be wooed by false promises. I refuse to be reduced to a vote bank. This is the only moment I feel a part, “not a part apart”.2
1 http://idsn.org/news-resources/idsn-news/re ad/article/a-landmark- judgment-in-the-fight-to-eradicate-manual-scavenging/128/
2 “Once challenged by nationalists to remember that he (Ambedkar) was ‘a part of the whole’ he replied, ‘But I am not a part of the whole, I am a part apart!’” (Omvedt 2004: 29). With no intention of changing Ambedkar’s original statement, I am twisting it a bit to say that election is the only moment when a scavenger feels part of the democracy; the rest of the time, everywhere, s/he is excluded.
Omvedt, Gail (2004): Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (New Delhi: Penguin).