Two years after Dr B.R. Ambedkar was nominated to the Bombay Legislative Council by the British in December 1926, he moved an amendment bill, in April 1928, to free two million untouchable Mahars from the scourge of compulsory and forced labour. This bill was the precursor to all legislations to come in the next 88 years, seeking to free the untouchable communities from performing unclean manual scavenging, removal of carcasses and forced labour without any remuneration from the villages and landlords. Before quitting his post in the Viceroy’s Executive Council as Labour Member in June 1946, Ambedkar brought in the unthinkable into the feudal and servitudinal Indian social fabric. He introduced India’s first ever minimum wages law in the Central Legislative Assembly on April 11, 1946.
This was a revolution of sorts against the feudal set-up, which thrived on the slavery of untouchable castes who were ordained by religious belief to perform menial jobs, such as scavenging human excreta, removal of animal carcasses, burial of dead humans and other such duties, without seeking wages. The only wages for all these duties were received in kind. They were called ‘baluta’ in Bombay presidency. The untouchable castes had to wait till the crops were harvested for receiving the baluta from the landlord in the form of worthless sheaves of unthreshed corn and remains of grains at the bottom of the grain pit.
Daya Pawar’s sensational autobiography Baluta (1978) was about these wages of serfdom. An excerpt goes like this: “As a child, I would always go with my mother to claim our share. Each house had its own bounden Mahar, and once the grain had been stacked in the threshing floors, someone from each Mahar family would be on his or her way.... Each Mahar would carry a coarse blanket. The farmers grumbled as they handed over the grain: ‘Low-born scum, you do no work. Motherfuckers, always first in line to get your share. Do you think this is your father’s grain?’.... Finally, the Mahars would spread their blankets on the grain and the Marathas would give them whatever was beneath. This came with a stream of abuse.” (Trans. Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger, 2015).
Essentially, what Ambedkar challenged in 1928 was a British system. The British paid a pittance every month (Re 1) for the official duties performed by the Mahars. These wages were given to the Mahars for being the village watchmen, messengers and official attendants. On the other hand, the baluta was a system of feudal relationship between the landlords and the Mahars, for services which had no end. Ambedkar made revolutionary changes to the ‘Mahar Watan’ or officially the Bombay Hereditary Offices Act, 1874.
The Mahars inherited ‘watan’ or ‘inam’—gifted lands from pre-British rulers in lieu of the services rendered. Ambedkar made the British convert baluta into a money cess and allowed the Mahar holder of a small watan to free himself from obligations to serve the landlords. This was truly freedom from slavery, as the Mahars now had the right to refuse service to the landlords. He amended the law so Mahars could get better wages for their services to the government. This not only benefited the Mahars of Maharashtra but also other Dalits in the region: the Vethias or Varthanis of Gujarat and the Ramoshis, Juglias and Holiyas of Karnataka.
Why must it be Dalits who do the disposal of corpses after a tsunami? Why are they still summoned to remove human waste after every mela?
What Ambedkar achieved for the Mahars did not spread across to other regions in India. The ‘begar’ (a system of forced labour) for the scavenging castes, which in parts of India rendered cleaning of human excreta, continued in north India under the jajmani system, which was similar to the baluta. The scavengers received the usual—treatment as filthy untouchables and occasional food (often stale) from households they served and other remuneration in kind during festivals. Mahatma Gandhi’s romanticisation of the scavenging castes and the Bhangis did not liberate them from their menial jobs. They were continuously made to believe, by a manipulative and static structure, that they were ordained by religion and caste to do the filthy scavenging work. Even though Ambedkar’s Minimum Wages Act of 1948 set aside the jajmani system legally, it continued.
In one stroke, Ambedkar liberated the Mahars in 1956 from religious slavery and bondage by converting them to Buddhism and asked millions of his followers to adopt the new religion. But the jajmani system continued in north India as the scavenging communities were forced to work for households using open and dry latrines. In urban areas in rest of India, Balmikis, Madigas and Bhangis were engaged as municipal workers and continued to remove human excreta. This was heavily practised, for instance, by the Indian Railways, which engaged scavenging castes to clean human faeces from the railway stations. Making Dalits enter filthy and poisonous manholes filled with faeces is an official municipal job.
On October 25, 1975, during the Emergency, the begar system was abolished, including such ‘begars’ arising out of any customary, social or hereditary obligation or by reason of birth in any particular caste or community. The Vetti or bonded labour system, invariably practised in all of India between landlords and Dalit communities, was officially abolished. The next year, the system of forced labour received a legal blow on November 19, 1976, with the coming in of the Protection of Civil Rights Act. It deemed compelling any Dalit to do scavenging or sweeping, removing carcass, flaying any animal and so on, a punishable offence. When the 1976 Act and the Indian Penal Code were found to be ineffective, the 1989 Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was brought in 20 years later. It increased the punishment of whosoever compels or entices a Dalit or an Adivasi to do begar or other similar forms of forced or bonded labour to five years.
Yet, neither did the dry latrines vanish nor did the practice of manual scavenging. It was not until 1993 that dry latrines, which were the root cause for the practice of manual scavenging, were officially abolished. The 1993 Act failed as there was no criminality attached to manual scavenging. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was amended again in 2013, with inputs from the safai karamchari movement by Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. With the intervention of Dalit groups led by S.D.J.M. Prasad, convenor, National Coalition for Strengthening of POA Act, the amendments to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act took place in 2016. The 2016 Act made it a criminal offence.
Now, it’s a crime to make a Dalit or an Adivasi do manual scavenging. It’s also a criminal offence to force them to do begar or other forms of forced or bonded labour or to compel them to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or dig graves. A monetary compensation of Rs 1 lakh has to be paid, in three instalments, to the victims upon registration of an FIR. As per the July 2015 socio-economic caste census data, 1,80,657 households are forced to be engaged in manual scavenging.
"Low-born scum, you do no work. Mother*** ***s, always first in line to get your share!"
After the December 2005 tsunami in Nagapattinam, it was the Dalit castes who were forcibly deployed to pull out dead bodies from the wet sand and tsunami debris and cremate them. Why are only Dalit castes forced to drag away and dispose of corpses or carcasses? Why are Dalit scavenger castes still summoned to remove human waste from every mela and jatara? Why are Dalit children in schools asked to clean toilets or sweep classrooms? And more importantly, why do Dalits reluctantly accept such menial work and fail to resist this forced labour? Dalits face horrible atrocities when they refuse to perform such inhuman and degrading menial work. They also face the prospect of social and economic isolation. This is deeply entrenched in the caste system and perpetuation of caste hegemony, with little change in the mindset of law enforcers over the years.
Vis-a-vis Ambedkar’s vivisection of the Hindu casteist society, the Ambedkarite movement has proved time and again that it’s only his ideology that can liberate Dalits from degrading caste-ordained human conditions. Dalits, armed with the Constitution and the energy of their own movements, are pushing to break the shackles of centuries-old exploitation from serfdom. Dalits have shown even technology liberates, when they used mobile phones to tell the whole world what was happening to them, from Hyderabad to Una. The next few years will be a real test: Indian society will face an essential conflict on account of this liberating law, which imparts criminality to manual scavenging, Begar and carrion disposal. As of now, the conflict has already spilled into the streets.
(The author is an Ambedkar scholar and an IAS officer. Opinions expressed are personal.)