January 18, 2020
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A Dream Of Unsoiled Life

A 30,000-km yatra against a “mildly hazardous” job that killed 1,200 Dalits in two years

A Dream Of Unsoiled Life
Marching Blues
The Bhim Yatra passes through a bustling Hisar bazaar
Photo by Tribhuvan Tiwari
A Dream Of Unsoiled Life
  • Cold Comfort Ambedkar would have converted to Sikhism, but balked at the prospect of becoming a “second-rate Sikh”
  • Last Laugh In 1956, he converted to Buddhism in Nagpur as he believed the city was named after the Naga Buddhists


The bus arrives two hours late. The crowd at Hisar town’s Multani Chowk park was beginning to get impatient when the ora­nge-coloured ‘sleeper bus’ finally rolls in, posters hanging from the windows. The ‘yatris’, visibly tired, march in to the beating of drums and slogans rent the air. Most of them are young boys and girls who have spent the last few months away from college to be part of Bhim Yatra. On their T-shirts are printed the words: “We will put an end to manual scavenging.” They had been to Fatehabad earlier in the day and the public speeches there went on longer than expected, delaying their arrival at Hisar.

Flagged off from Dibrugarh, Assam, last December, the bus would have traversed 30,000 km across 500 districts, covering all the states, before the journey ends in New Delhi on April 14 (B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary) with a rally at Jantar Mantar. Part of a campaign for making people aware of the existence of manual scavenging in our midst despite the laws prohibiting the practice, Bhim Yatra has made nearly 400 stops already at places such as Gangtok (Sikkim), Ranchi (Jharkhand), Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), Tiruchirappalli, Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu), Kolhapur (Maharashtra) and Amethi (Uttar Pradesh).

According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), which works among sanitation workers, manual scavenging—the handling human excreta with bare hands, and the cleaning of sewers without protective gear—has caused 1,268 deaths in just the past two years. While government data pegs the number of rural households with at least one person engaged in manual scavenging at 1,80,657, there are no figures yet on the prevalence of the practice in urban areas.

So, even as Gandhi’s spectacles peer back at us from every other wall or billboard, especially around garbage dumps and Swachh Bharat takes “a step towards cleanliness”, manual scavenging continues to put at risk the health and, in fact, the very lives of a huge number of sanitation workers every day. Yet, the recently launched National Career Service portal lists the illegal practice among jobs that are “mildly hazardous or dangerous”.

The prime minister’s views on the matter, though, seem to have evolved since. Last year he said manual scavenging should not continue into 2016—the year of Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. The Bhim Yatris in Hisar could not agree more. They tell the 100-odd locals who have gathered in the park about their mission to eradicate manual scavenging and also bring up Ambedkar and his anti-caste ideology that motivates them. And then they turn to the 2013 law that deals with the practice—the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.

Before the 2013 Act came into force and shifted the focus to rehabilitation, the previous legislation on the subject, dating back to 1993, aimed primarily at penalising those who hired people to do that work or built unsanitary toilets (dry latrines) that could only be cleaned manually. The new law entitles sanitation workers to a cash assistance of Rs 40,000 and a residential plot, besides provision for skills-training along with a stipend and loans for inc­ome-generating activities.

Among the yatris in the bus is Pushpa Devi, a mother of four whose husband, Sajan Kumar, died cleaning a sewer in Narela on the outskirts of Delhi 10 years ago. Noxious fumes emanating from the sewer he went down to clean had knocked him unconscious before killing him. Pushpa was in Sonepat, Haryana, when the police broke the news to her. A gove­rnment official persuaded her to take Rs 2 lakh and allow the case to be closed.

She had no clue that her husband’s work could kill him and had even less knowledge of what the law promised people like her. She didn’t know, for instance, that the 2013 Act entitled her—as next of kin of someone who died cleaning a sewer after 1993 (the year the practice was banned)­—to Rs 10 lakh in compensation.

“I struggled to raise my children, all of them aged between five and 11 when they lost their father. I had no land, house or support from the family and had to clean other people’s houses to make a living and pay for my children’s education. On this trip I have met other women who said similar things had happened with them,” says Pushpa, who is doing all she can to get the full compensation that the law promises. “Even if I don’t get what is rightfully mine, I want all of them to get what’s theirs.”

The yatris lead the crowd of 100-odd loc­als out of the park in a procession through the narrow lanes of the town to a statue of mythical saint Valmiki. The slogans are back and a large portrait of Ambedkar takes pride of place in the march.

SKA activists say they have long demanded an apology “for the historical injustice and centuries of humiliation” heaped on manual scavengers, besides ensuring that their rights by law become part of their lived life. Another demand is to mechanise the sewerage system and eventually eliminate the very need for manual scavenging so that death would no longer be an occupational hazard for a large section of sani­­tation workers.

While spreading awareness is one goal, another one is reaching out for solidarity and sharing. In Hisar, Balwant Boundiya, a lawyer, talks of the stigma he faced in school because his father was a sanitation worker. “It was, therefore, all the more important for me to educate myself,” he says. “Now that I am a lawyer, I take up many cases related to the Scheduled Castes.”

Recounting his childhood experience of accompanying his mother to clean a dry latrine, a community leader from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, says, “The owner asked her if she had brought me to eat or to clean the shit. It hurt real bad and I cried a lot. Maybe that is the reason why I never went back to clean a dry latrine.”

Another interesting sidelight that could point to the historical difference of opinion between Gandhi and Ambedkar on manual scavenging is that while the Swachh Bharat mission’s website sports a graphic of Gandhi sweeping and calls for “making India clean by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi”, there is no picture of Ambedkar. To Gandhi, who never tired talking of the “dignity of labour”, manual scavenging was integral to Hinduism, so while he discouraged those “born scavengers” from leaving the occupation, he encouraged others, too, to partake of the “sacred” duty. In 1936, he said a bhangi “should know the process of converting night-soil and urine into manure” and “be an authority on the subject of disposal of night soil”. Ten years later, he wrote that scavengers should raise their work to a “fine art.”

Ambedkar, in sharp contrast, called out the contradiction between dignity and scavenging as a caste occupation. He pointed out that both religion and law doomed those born to the scavenger caste to become scavengers.

Writing in his magazine Young India in 1925, Gandhi called for an end to discrimination against scavengers but didn’t see it as inseparable from the system of castes. This echoes the ‘peaceful’ coexistence in his mind of opposition to untouchability and support for caste distinctions.

In his 2007 book Karmayog, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (then Gujarat CM), too, described scavenging as an “experience in spirituality” for the Valmiki sub-caste of Dalits, who have been condemned to scavenging jobs for centuries. “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood,” he wrote. “Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of work generation after generation.” Not surprising, then, that it is Gandhi, not Ambedkar, who dominates the official discourse on “cleanliness” in Modi’s India.

The counterpoint to the dominant narrative lies in campaigns such as Bhim Yatra that find inspiration in Ambedkar’s call to root out the very system of scavenging and annihilate caste as it permits no real dignity. A radical idea in his time, the condition of manual scavengers acr­oss India shows that the idea remains just as radical even today, 60 years after Amb­e­dkar’s death.

By Anoo Bhuyan in Hisar (Haryana)

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