Tag Archives: caste

a short-lived promise to manual scavengers

Back in May 2010, sixty Dalits, who had worked their entire lives as manual scavengers, burned the baskets they used for collecting human excreta outside the District Collector’s office here. They had just been employed as sweepers by the local administration under a rehabilitation scheme. Five months later, all of them are without work, having been suspended, astonishingly, for not working hard enough.

“It took us a lot of courage to set those baskets on fire and announce that we were free. But now, for many of us the only way to feed our family is to pick up the same basket again,” said a disheartened worker. Difficult, demeaning

The district administration’s charge against the suspended Dalits is that they were “not working properly, being non-serious and lazy.” But the fact remains that they had spent the better part of their lives in one of most difficult and demeaning occupations — the inhuman practice of manually disposing of human excreta from dry latrines with brooms and baskets, work which violates human dignity and which is today banned by the statute.

“It is amusing that some time ago the government claimed that the district was free of manual scavenging. Now they say that no one in the administration is lazy except the manual scavengers! At least now they accept that the obnoxious practice still exists and by not eradicating it they are violating the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993,” said Rajkumar, State president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Collector S.P. Srow said that even though over 200 manual scavengers were offered jobs on a salary of Rs. 4,400 a month, they did not work properly and hence had to be fired. “It was ensured that they were rehabilitated even though the Supreme Court gave only guidelines and not directions. I made sure that they were employed as sweepers but they were not working at all and it would have been wrong to waste government money on them anymore.”

The Collector said he condemned manual scavenging and wished that the practice were eradicated. “Even today if they give an affidavit saying they will work wholeheartedly, I will happily make arrangements for their employment.”

A few women who had left scavenging after decades started the degrading work again because they are the sole breadwinners. “But we talked to them, made them realise that resuming the inhuman act will lead to greater health problems for themselves and be an impediment to a thousand others who are trying to end this practice once and for all. Finally, they pledged that they would die rather than contemplate manual scavenging as a job option,” said another woman, who had left the job.

Asked why the manual scavengers were employed only as sweepers, the Collector said: “There is an obvious lack of education and skill among the women but they were employed as sweepers because the administration needed more sweepers at that time.” He did not respond to a query how the need for sweepers was being met in their absence.

Occupational dignity

“The least that can be done is to provide a dignified occupation for them. A few months as sweeper can only be a temporary relief, not a sustainable rehabilitation package for the entire family,” said Wilson Bezwada, president of SKA, who has spearheaded the fight against manual scavenging and is now leading the Samajik Parivarthan Yatra, a strategic programme of bus trips from five different corners of India, through 20 States, culminating in New Delhi.

The aim of the yatra is to motivate and inspire others who are still engaged in manual scavenging to free themselves.

“Apart from a rehabilitation package to ensure a dignified livelihood, free education should be provided to those many generations of a scavenging family in order to ensure that the coming generations do not fall into the trap of poverty and caste,” said Mr. Bezwada.

“Instead of giving them grants for permanent employment, the administration employed them [the Dalits] before floods hit the area, made them clean the gutters and the sewerage system, which is as bad as manual scavenging. Then it claims that they are not working,” said Mr. Rajkumar. “For the satisfaction of the Collector, I gave an affidavit taking responsibility that the women would work. Also, residents signed that they were working properly, but none of the submissions helped. We met the Haryana Chief Minister, who gave us a patient hearing, but nothing was done,” he added.

“There is a law which makes this work illegal but the world gives enough reasons for an uneducated poor Dalit to still do scavenging,” said Mr. Bezwada.” Manual scavenging is integrally linked with the caste system and is imposed on certain Dalit sub-caste groups. Invariably, women, comprising 82 per cent of the caste, carry the burden.

Apology demanded

The andolan demands an official apology from the Government of India for having violated human dignity and human rights of safai karamcharis for so many years. Other basic demands include demolition of dry latrines and punishment to dry latrine owners and all those who forced safai karamcharis to clean those latrines under the SC/ST Atrocity Prohibition Act, 1989.

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the invisible shame – manual scavengers

Each morning a group of Dalit women step outside their homes to “fulfil their social role” of cleaning dry latrines with their brooms and bare hands. They then carry human excrement in pots and baskets on their heads.

Braving the worst possible form of caste oppression, these women lead unhygienic lives — devoid of dignity and rights — for wages as low as Rs.15 a month.

“I was not used to doing this work before I was married but my mother-in-law forced me. I don’t blame her; it was the only way we could feed our families. We were told that our ancestors did this and this was the only work we could do as Dalits,” says Kusum, who left scavenging ten months ago to work as a sweeper.

Biggest problem

“The biggest problem is that manual scavenging is seen as an occupation or a social role instead of an inhuman atrocity with a shameful social sanction. I don’t believe we need to rehabilitate people. Once you make them realise it is an atrocity, they will quit,” says Wilson Bezwada, national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Mr. Bezwada is leading a campaign that he hopes will liberate millions by this December-end. Much of the struggle involves liberating manual scavengers from the psychological burden of the caste system as they are invariably Dalits and almost always women.

“Every day after dumping the waste I used to go back to the same houses to collect stale food and beg for money. I worked every single day for over 40 years, even during rains which caused the basket’s contents to seep out and cover me in filth. When I left the basket, I felt I was reborn,” says Krishna, now a sweeper.

According to SKA, there were over 11,000 manual scavengers in Haryana five years ago. Today the number is less then two dozen. “But the Administration always claimed the State was free of manual scavengers and dry latrines, even when hundreds were working in the dry toilets of the Railways and the Municipalities,” says Rajkumar of SKA, Haryana.

Caste hierarchy and untouchability prevented women from rising to any other job. “We don’t choose to do this. We’re born into it because we are at the absolute bottom of society. The job came as a legacy. But I made sure my children never touched those baskets,” says Manju whose eldest son is in college.

Though houses have proper toilets now, they are not connected with the sewer lines. The sewage falls into an open gutter which is manually cleaned when it overflows. “This is worse than the dry toilets because the accumulated and dried sewage has to be swept and collected in baskets for dumping,” says Rajan Devi, a manual scavenger.

Inhuman conditions

Until SKA intervened, the women worked in inhuman conditions and faced discrimination.

To keep us from coming into the house, we were made to use a rickety wooden staircase against an exterior wall. When I was eight months pregnant, I slipped. Instead of having pity, they abused me for polluting their house,” recalls Saroj.

Cleaning dry toilets and manually removing human waste is a violation of human rights and dignity and was prohibited over 17 years ago. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, lays down a jail term of up to one year or fine of Rs.2,000.

However, there were no prosecutions until 2005 when 21 people were convicted in Haryana. “But they got bail the next day. I should add that Haryana claims to be a scavenger-free State” says Mr. Wilson. Workers cleaning open gutters, manholes and septic tanks, which mean greater risks, are not covered by the Act.

A petition by SKA in the Supreme Court in 2003 forced the State Governments to act in 2007. “Though administrations will deny manual scavenging, municipalities and the Railways are the biggest employers. Indian Railways responded to one of our PILs saying they would take over 30-40 years for the transition and promised to ‘consider’ the court order. The tracks have to be cleaned manually since coaches have the ‘open discharge’ system, and most stations are not equipped with concretised platforms allowing waste to be washed away with jets of water.”

Most scavengers have respiratory problems, asthma, tuberculosis and jaundice. To escape the sight and smell, many male scavengers take drugs and alcohol and eventually succumb to diseases. As Mr. Wilson puts it, “They cannot tolerate the smell and sights and drugs or liquor are their form of escape from reality until the next round when they will go on and start cleaning.”

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Embers of the agony, when upper caste tried to teach a lesson…

“I heard her cries when the burning roof collapsed on her. How can I now befriend those who doused that roof with petrol? I will not sell my daughter’s body,” said Kamla Devi, who lost her husband and teenaged daughter in the caste based arson on April 21.

Kamla Devi’s sons on Friday refused Government jobs that the administration offered. The Dalits from Mirchpur village protesting outside the District Commissioner’s office in Hisar raised the demand of death penalty for the guilty. Holding the fort firmly, the crowd refused to return to the village until its demand of rehabilitation in a new establishment elsewhere, away from Mirchpur was satisfied.

Eighteen-year-old Suman, who suffered from polio, was trapped in her burning house and was charred to death while her 70-year-old father Tara Chand suffered 90 per cent burns, and died later, when over a dozen houses belonging to the Dalits were set ablaze allegedly by Jats of the same village. Kamla Devi, who faints each time she recalls the events which led to the death of her family members, says she wants nothing, and adds, “what can anyone give me now?”

Claiming that the Dalits have started to realize their collective strength, Krishna Duggal, national president of Akhil Bhartiya Dhanak Samaj, a dalit organization said: “We can not go back to the village where the police brazenly granted Jat an hour’s time to burn homes and the administration has not done anything. The arrests are merely an eye wash and soon the guilty will roam around free.”

Six teenage girls and three boys of Mirchpur, sitting on fast unto death outside, said the politicians are ‘passing time’. “No politicians supported the protest; giving cash compensation to one family will not rehabilitate the dalit families who lost their houses. It will not bring peace to the entire village. The guilty should be given death sentence. That is the only just verdict.”

Meanwhile, Jat representatives of the village visited the District Commissioner and requested that the administration helps bridge the rift so that, “the villagers can live in brotherhood again.” “We all condemn the events and are ashamed of the anti-social elements in the village. But we assure our Valmiki brothers that their life and property will be valued, so they should return to the village,” said Devar Tom Prakash.

The Deputy Commissioner of Hisar, O.P Shaoran, said that despite administration’s attempts the protesters are adamant on not returning to their village. “The administration promptly provided them with security, ration and jobs but their demand for capital punishment (to the guilty) and land in a new village can not be granted the same way.”

In Mirchpur, 60 kms from Hisar, the burned houses stand testimony to the horrible tale that the few Dalit families left in the village detail. “This trunk had clothes that were being stored for her (Suman’s) wedding; this used to be the special handicapped cycle she used; these are burned pages of her books and that hole in the roof is right over the place where we found her body,” says a villager. Each of the over 18 homes has walls blackened by smoke.

“We lost many valuable items — water-coolers, washing machines, televisions, refrigerators and motorcycles; all were doused with petrol and set on fire. They identified houses of the well-off among the Dalit community and set them on fire first. It was an attempt to burn down whatever prosperity they saw,” said a traumatized women whose home was also destroyed.

The Jats term the arson as “a shameful act done by misguided youth,” but the Dalits are convinced that it was a pre-planned attack to curb their prosperity and kill them.

Cases have been registered against policemen who were present at the scene of the incident and allegedly helped the guilty.

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trauma of a village- the honour killing tale

KAITHAL: Two days after five people were given the capital punishment by a court for the so-called honour-killing of a young couple here in Haryana, the family members of the victims are more tense than they are relieved. “The verdict has done justice to my son’s death, but it has not changed the way the village works,” says Chandrapati Berwal who fought the legal battle.

She is the mother of Manoj, who along with Babli was murdered three years ago by Babli’s relatives on the orders of a ‘khap panchayat’ for having married within the same gotra. But Tuesday’s landmark verdict seems to have made little difference to the minds of the votaries of the system of ‘khap panchayats’, which are caste-based.

“The panchayat only intended to bring about a moral balance and inculcate honour in youngsters, although its method was perhaps a bit too harsh,” said a resident of the village, who refused to reveal his name. Asked about the verdict, he said: “The panchayat killed two persons and the court will kill five. At the end of it all the village has lost seven lives. I don’t see justice in any of the verdicts.”

“The villagers, who have boycotted us socially and financially, will not change their mindset. The verdict has given a milder form of punishment to the actual instigator, sarpanch Ganaga Raj,” said Ms. Chandrapati. She alleged that panchayats could get away with giving such harsh orders and executing them only owing to political backing and the inefficiency of the police. For the last three years one police constable has been guarding her doors, but since the verdict on Tuesday the police presence around her house in Kerora village has increased. “Earlier there was one man, now there are two jeeps. But I and my daughter are as unsafe as we ever were. The police could do nothing when a few goons went after my son and his wife. What will the police do if all of them barge into my house at once?”

A tense calm prevails in the dusty village. Nobody will publicly discuss the matter, and except in Ms. Chandrapati’s house none dares to talk about it even indoors. Village sarpanch Karambeer Singh refused even to come out of his house. The street where Babli once lived wears a pall of gloom. The women in Babli’s maternal house sit with stony expressions and refuse to identify themselves or talk to anyone, especially mediapersons, who are often seen as the villains who exaggerated the issue.

“They tried to hide their sin from us, and then they tried to threaten, boycott and even bribe us so that we keep quiet. My son will not return but they will bear the pain of their wrongs so that such inhuman decisions are never taken by anyone,” she said.

A few kilometres from Ms. Chandrapati’s village, in Matour village, Hari Krishan cries with his son’s photographs in his hands. His hope is that a similar judgment would come in his case as well: his 23-year-old son was lynched by a crowd for marrying a girl from the neighbouring village. Ved Pal and his wife Sonia’s marriage was accepted by both the families as they were of the same caste although the gotras differed. But later the ‘khap panchayat’ instigated Sonia’s family to forcibly marry the 17-year-old to a 50-year-old man and later kill Ved Pal.

“My son was killed by a mob because a panchayat felt that marrying a girl from the neighbouring village was ‘incest’. And I was expected to make peace with this explanation? After this verdict I feel that unlike the politicians and the police, the law is not going to be unjust to us. But the sarpanch [Ganga Raj] should have been given the death penalty as he was the root cause of the trouble,” said Mr. Hari Krishan.

Mr. Hari Krishan, who has cancer, said he too was approached by the sarpanch of Sonia village for a compromise. “They offered me Rs.25 lakh. They think a father can forgive his son’s murderer just because he is poor. I will fight this case till the last drop of blood.”

This father then cried out aloud, and asked: “Because of the khap so many families have lost their breadwinners. Why didn’t they let them live? What honour comes from giving widows and orphans to homes that were otherwise happy?”

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