November 18, 2002


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Varsha Bhosle

The naked face of casteism

In all my years of writing, I've never received as much email for a single column as I did over the last two weeks. Since I was more interested than I've ever been to know readers' views, I not only read every single message as it arrived, but also categorised it by sender and content, besides noting down pertinent points. However, I answered only those which inspired unprintable invective; as for the rest, please understand, I couldn't have conducted my personal "survey" and responded to everybody, too. Thank you all for writing in and giving me glimpses of your caste-related thoughts and experiences --- I intend addressing those issues soon.

The variety of opinions was instructive, but I anticipated that from a people who widely differ on the nature of their religion itself. Nevertheless, what I did NOT expect were thoughts such as reader Poduri's: "There is nothing wrong with doing the kinds of jobs that are performed by the Shudras. The work in itself should carry no stigma --- it is work that is needed by the society, and someone needs to do it."

I wish it were the only mail of its kind...

Not! For, another reader forwarded me a link to the open forum at Sulekha, with comments on my article by one Satish Tiwary. I'm glad they weren't directly addressed to me --- my reply would've been rendered incoherent by my rage. I quote:

  • cleaning and hauling excreta --- this has no basis in Indian culture... It started in India when the new fashioned cities started with what we call 'kamau' toilets... That, alongwith the freezing of the caste boundaries that happened during the colonial period, created a new caste of 'bhangis.' Now, with the advent of modern sanitation, this thing has vanished, and carrying human refuge [sic] as a job has been made illegal throughout India. It is a social rather than 'hindu' problem.
  • burn corpses --- ditto. It is a job like any other job and I have not seen anyone forced to do it. I think it is a respectable job, and go try to insult Domraj at Manikarnika Ghat, Kashi, if you dont believe it. The whole received wisdom of hierarchy doesn't work there.
  • Tend morgues --- ditto. In addition, I know plenty of so called 'upper caste' people who tend morgues in different hospitals.
  • Skin dead animals --- ditto. People in leather industry have to skin dead animals. They don't auto-skin.
  • None of these jobs are insulting, other than carrying human refuge [sic], which has been made illegal. As far as I know, no one is forced to do these things, and I should know as I come from a poor village in north-western Bihar. Most of the young people from the 'castes' who were supposed to do these jobs dont do it anymore as they dont pay enough. They work in the mills and factories in Delhi or Bombay, or work as agricultural laborers in Punjab.
Maybe, just maybe, I would've let this garbage pass --- if not for the congratulatory chorus from Sulekha's "secularists", "rationalists" and "chaddis" alike: "Good views, Satish, esp the one regarding so called 'low' jobs!" "Things are changing and it is labour for living and dignity of labour gaining ground slowly but surely", "Satish, Very succintly [sic] and elegantly put and I concur", "ur comments were very good".

THIS is the naked face of casteism. There can't be a more revealing example of how the "upper castes" endeavour to limit Dalits to sub-human jobs --- in the guise of "respecting" labour. The closed casteist camaraderie is evident as they pat each other for "telling it like it is". Which, according to Tiwary: "It is economy, stupid! Rest of the noise is just harmful bullshit."

It's easy to live abroad --- I guess, Tiwary & Co are NRIs --- and talk about "knowing" non-Dalits who tend morgues in Mumbai, burn corpses in Kolkata and shift human refuse in Ranchi. Hundreds of readers happen by, absorb the pile of garbage as facts, with no one to ask the dork to put up or shut up; with online anonymity, there's no question of credibility, integrity or culpability, anyway. Rarely have I felt as violent as I feel towards these poisonous thugs. And so, I will skin Tiwary's postulates as I would his posterior.

The Government of India's All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health states that "only about 200 cities and towns in India out of a total of more than 4,000 have sewage systems and that too partial. Only very few of these have sewerage treatment plants, most of which are ill maintained and go out of operation more often than not. As of today, less than 50% of the urban population are having sanitary excreta disposal system. There are still 4 lakh scavengers and 72.1 lakh dry latrines in 2,587 towns. In rural areas, open defecation in the field continues to remain the only form of sanitation for majority of the population... less than 10% of the rural population have sanitary facilities. Facilities of drainage and sewerage disposal are almost non-existent."

"This thing has vanished"...? Whether the Chuhras of Punjab, Dumras of Rajasthan, Mehtars of Bihar, Bhuimalia of Bengal, Bhangis of Gujarat, Pakhis of Andhra Pradesh, or Sikkaliars and Thotis of Tamil Nadu, Dalit scavengers exist under different caste names throughout the country --- and have since pre-colonial times. Or did you think that the Chitpavans of Punyanagri, or the Saraswats of Karnataka, or the Rajputs of Rajasthan went to the woods, or cleaned out their own night soil before the advent of the British...?

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of non-flush (dry) latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine up to Rs 2,000. That's right --- this Act was passed less than a decade ago. And all that's changed is that the scavengers are now called "safai karamcharis" and have a panel to oversee their welfare. Using no more than a broom, metal plates and baskets, Dalits are made to clear excreta from latrines and carry it to dumping grounds --- even today.

According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, it's the Bhangis who engage in scavenging. At all levels, whether in villages or in municipalities, this class constitutes the workers who clean up after the "upper castes". In a 1997 report, the commission stated that the manual scavengers are "totally cut off from the mainstream of progress" and are "still subjected to the worst kind of oppression and indignities. What is more pathetic is the fact that manual scavenging is still largely a hereditary occupation. Safai karamcharis are no doubt the most oppressed and disadvantaged section of the population."

A survey conducted by Safai Karmachari Andolan found over 1,650 scavengers in ten districts in Andhra Pradesh; most were also engaged in underground sewage work. It revealed that 98% of manual scavengers in the state were Dalits, the rest being Shudra. Such workers are employed by urban municipalities for about Rs 2,000 a month --- but paid only once every four to six months. Why don't the "dignity"-dorks get out their Japanese calculators and figure out what American janitors receive per month for less taxing jobs...? Hint: In August, Boston's "cleaning contractors" agitated for an increase in their $11.30 per hour pay scale.

I'd like to know the "dignity" in manually cleaning out --- without gloves, masks, overshoes, protective overalls --- hundreds of dry latrines daily. Even other scheduled-caste people do not touch the scavengers, who, in canteens, are made to wash and handle their own dishes so that those meant for caste Hindus are not "polluted". Not a Hindu problem...?

In cities, scavengers are lowered by ropes into filthy gutters to unclog them, without any protective gear whatsoever. In Mumbai, I've seen boys emerge from manholes completely covered in shit and scum. In cities, many have died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Would Tiwary allow his son to partake in this "dignity"...?

To The Week of August 15, 1999, Madhuben Parmar of Limbdi village related her day: "I start my work at 6 am. With a broom or a tin plate, I collect human excreta in a metal drum and dump it at a fixed place for the municipality tractor-trolley to collect. Earlier, I had to carry it on my head to the river a kilometre away about 10 times a day. In the afternoon, I clean the gutters. I carry it to the dumping yard nearby. In the evening, I again collect human excreta. Sometimes I have to dispose of dead animals. So late in the evening, I do the rounds of various upper caste houses to collect valu [leftover food]. But when I return home I can hardly eat because of nausea. The men are lucky, they can drown it all in liquor." Dignified enough for Tiwary...?

The Navsarjan Trust, an NGO working for abolition of manual scavenging, challenged the Gujarat government to conduct house-to-house surveys and disprove its finding that over 7,000 manual scavengers work either for municipalities or privately in Ahmedabad, Surendranagar and Kheda districts alone. Said Martin Macwan, "Manual scavenging cannot be looked at in isolation as an occupation. It is built in the caste system and is getting worse. Fifty years ago there was no technology but today we have it. But things still remain the same. Technology again is caste-based. If you are on the wrong side of the fence, you hardly get exposed to it." Yes, technology enables dorks to spew garbage online.

Dry latrines are no more than a small room in which a hole in the ground opens into a compartment below. The scavenger has to crawl into the compartment and empty out the receptacle, with filth falling all over his body. According to Preetiben Vaghela, a social activist working among scavengers, because of these conditions, almost all Bhangis suffer from respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disorders and trachoma --- a form of contagious bacterial conjunctivitis resulting in blindness --- along with complaints of fever, headache, fatigue and dizziness.

Also, each and every scavenger is an alcoholic --- right from the tender years when his slight form was a "boon" to crawl into narrow shit-filled pits. So lofty is this "dignity of labour" that it can only be enjoyed when one is drunk-oblivious of the surroundings. Tiwary should try it: he'd become one with the environment.

"Burn corpses --- ditto. It is a job like any other job." Right, just like techies punch on keyboards and cabbies steer the wheel, the Doms --- ie, the untouchables of Varanasi --- punch up the cremation fires with long poles, hoist half of a skeleton and the skull into the air, then slam it down and beat it with the pole, breaking it up so that it would burn better. So like any other job, no?

Since corpses can't auto-ignite, nor can electric crematoriums deliver orthodox Hindus to where they are bound (not swarg, surely), how do the "upper castes" manipulate an entire stratum of people to do their hideous jobs for them? Well, the leader of the Doms is given the title of 'Raja' while his kin are sanctioned to sell the wood, collect money and tend the ever-burning "sacred" fire from which all pyres are lit --- which fire has been kept lit by the Doms and passed from father to son for generations!

This is a classic Brahmin ploy --- create an illusion of grandeur and self-importance within a group of "Untouchables" and then make them haul and split corpses, while Brahmin Jr cavorts in the US of A inventing theories on "dignity of labour".

Apropos the West, I accept that people take such jobs because they want to, or because they didn't study further, or because the pay is good, etc. In India, whether or not some escape their forced, caste-based existence, the fact remains that those who are in these demeaning jobs are only Dalits --- locked in there by the "upper castes".

As for those who escape as "agricultural laborers", any Bihari should know this statistic: An estimated 40 million people, of which 15 million are children, are bonded labourers --- the majority being Dalits. Actually, that calls for a separate article --- which, anyway, will be throwing more pearls before casteist swine.

Varsha Bhosle

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