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The Politics Of Shit In India

Three manual scavengers died this week in Bangalore, but who cares?

08/03/2017 2:21 PM IST | Updated 09/03/2017 8:52 AM IST
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It is a criminal, non-bailable offence but it is flouted blatantly nevertheless. Manual scavenging is still a predominant occupation for a large number of people, and continues to be a reason for the deaths of many as well. The most recent of events being the deaths of three manual scavengers, working on a contract basis, in Bangalore on Tuesday. This is nothing new for Bangalore. The city has had a dark history with regard to the deaths of manual scavengers, usually due to asphyxiation. Most if not all these deaths have a direct connection to the poor state of tools supplied (if at all).

We are a deeply casteist society where only some kinds of deaths and some kinds of humiliation receive attention and outrage.

Bangalore, my own hometown, is known to be the silicon valley of India. It has long been recognised as the fast growing IT hub and the cradle of development. But development for whom? What about those that actually clean our shit? Those who die doing so? The years 2008-2016 saw 59 people die through this drudgery in Bangalore alone. Many workers die due to asphyxiation, while others lose their lives to devastating skin diseases. Many more die due to alcoholism—they become addicted to alcohol from a young age, unable to carry on their work without dulling their senses.

Under the façade of development, technology and economic growth lies this gruesome occupation. Development becomes yet again the prerogative of higher classes and castes. After all, let us not forget that manual scavenging is predominantly a Dalit/ lower caste occupation. Taking a cue from the preamble of our Constitution, development has its own narrative preamble—we the people (from an upper caste and class) give to ourselves this notional fabric of development to better our lives, even at the cost of others, although we shall strive as much as possible to make it seem that the notion of development shall equally apply to all.

The past couple of years have taken the lives of more than 1300 manual scavengers throughout the country. This is even though the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed in 2013. Ironically, government agencies also blatantly disregard and violate this Act. It is pertinent to note that the criminalisation of manual scavengers took place as far back as 1993. It was only the extension of the criminalization that took place in 2013. Manual scavenging was criminalised only in the context of "dry-toilets" in 1993, which got extended to insanitary latrines, ditches and pits in 2013. How do we fathom the fact that even though the original Act came into force in 1993, as per the 2011 socio-economic caste census report 1,80,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a living? Or the fact that the 2011 census report found 7, 94,000 cases of manual scavenging in India?

Shockingly, although manual scavenging is a criminal offence, and has been for quite some time now, the Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers in India.

In Safai Karamchari Andolan & ors v. Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court of India confirmed that approximately 9.6 million dry latrines is India are still being manually emptied, although the same has been explicitly prohibited since 1993. At least 1.3 million manual scavengers are identified as Dalit, and are mostly women.

Women's Day is an important occasion for everyone engaged in, passionate about or even interested in women's struggles and feminist movements. But unfortunately, there will be no transformation of social realities, including patriarchy, until and unless the diverse oppression of women, through its associations with caste and class, is collectively resisted. Bangalore sees today, for probably the first time, the biggest march by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) powrakarmikas (street sweepers and waste collectors). The powrakarmikas are resisting the lack of wages (many of whom who do not even get minimum wages) and many are resisting the lack of benefits and degrading working conditions, including the exploitative nature of work enforced by the contractors.

Contract law primarily works on the fundamental principle called consensus ad idem, which (sadly) remains nothing more than a myth. Consensus ad idem literally translates to "consent to the same thing in the same sense." However, most contract labourers, including manual scavengers and powrakarmikas, hardly have any say in consenting from an autonomous position making independent decisions. An undue advantage of power always plays a role, and through the unfortunate reality of social inequality and hierarchy most labourers are forced to take these exploitative jobs for meagre wages and with least safety. This is excluding the humiliation and physical and sexual exploitation that they undergo as a part and parcel of their job.

There will be no transformation of social realities, including patriarchy, unless the diverse oppression of women, through its associations with caste and class, is collectively resisted.

The recent deaths of three manual scavengers on Tuesday don't signal anything new for India. Neither is it new that the corporate-run upper caste media hardly cares about the plight of manual scavengers or their exploitation—even at the hands of the state and its agencies. Shockingly, although manual scavenging is a criminal offence, and has been for quite some time now, the Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers in India. Far from trying to prohibit manual scavenging, the State is actively encouraging and propagating this humiliation and exploitation. This is but only a reminder that we are a deeply casteist society where only some kinds of deaths and some kinds of humiliation receive attention and outrage. Meanwhile, some historically reprehensible occupations based on humiliation, caste oppression and exploitation easily escape our consciousness and vision. This is not only our innocent ignorance but actually our wilful decision not to see it, or not to hear it or not to engage with it. What an unfortunate society to live in, where who you are depends on how your shit is dealt with. Maybe we should think twice before exclaiming, "My life is full of shit!"

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