If we were to go by Twitter feeds, India’s 69th Independence Day will be remembered for Narendra Modi’s second August 15 speech, Taj Mahal’s social media debut, and the Delhi government’s celebration of Arvind Kejriwal Day. Sprinkle some patriotic videos, a little patriotism-blended outrage, few India-still-lacks-this graphs and memes, and you have covered what Twitter looked like this Independence Day. Well, almost.
As Twitterati continue to sort out the most outrage-worthy trends, commentary on the hits and misses of Modi’s speech goes on. “Startup India, Stand up India” dominates conversations and his focus on creation of jobs is drawing applause. It is not the first time the PM has talked about jobs. He has touched upon this issue over and over again. He has talked about the fact that India needs more jobs, that the youth need skill training. The government has even launched a cover-all job portal with vacancies for blue collar workers, among others. However, Narendra Modi hasn’t talked about a job which exists but shouldn’t. Because if there is a “worst job in India”, it is this.
Every morning, 1.8 lakh households get up to do a job that could hardly be described as a “career option”. The job is manual scavenging, and these people clean shit for a living. This job is illegal, and everything about their work is despicable. The fact that it can even be categorised as work - as recently done by a government job portal - should offend any civilised society.
Assuming at least few households will have more than one family member working as a manual scavenger, the number may actually run into many more individuals, who pick up others’ waste or descend into manholes for sewerage cleaning. It also means these many people are humiliated by the society every single day owing to the caste they are born into.
For somebody with roots in a remote village, it’s not difficult for me to recall a cowering, basket-wielding woman from childhood’s occasional trips to my village. She was Savitri*, and her entry into anybody’s premises would be announced by elders with a stern warning, asking kids not to touch her - or even cross her path. She was hardly smiled at and had food thrown in front of her. The likes of Savitri, and their families, wouldn’t even sit in the tonga or auto that had an upper caste member. These are the unsaid social codes which manual scavengers follow. The sword of harassment by upper castes and ostracisation from villages hangs on the heads of those who protest against it.
Many villages moved to water toilets years ago - more for their convenience than concern for the unfortunate lot forced into cleaning their defecation areas. However, Savitris were the norm. In villages with dry toilets, they are still the norm.
Construction of sanitary toilets may address the issue to a great extent, but it is highly unlikely that this would put an end to the problems faced by manual scavengers.
The treatment meted out to them is also a result of society’s denial of equal rights to the lowest of castes. There is little else to describe the emergence of the toilet-cleaning, pet poop picking class of househelps in smaller cities. These city versions of nightsoil pickers can be seen entering their employers’ homes with utmost care - making sure they do not touch the curtains, folded before they can step in, or even doormats. The most unfortunate part being the calm acceptance of being an outcaste.
The sooner we root out manual scavenging the better, lest we want to see another generation being pushed into cleaning toilets by the mere circumstance of being born into a particular caste.
*The memory is really faint. The fact is who I remember as Savitri may possibly have some other name. I doubt, however, if it would have changed her destiny.